Following a fierce battle by King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to defend the home of Princess Gwynevere, Merlin the Magician is deeply shaken by a terrifying premonition of the fall of Camelot. Guided by magic, Merlin travels to the distant Empire of China where he meets a boy who Merlin believes will one day rescue the Queen and save Camelot from destruction.
Right from the opening, the book begins with a battle. What better way to get the reader right into the story as well as acquainted with the main players and the roots of one of the main conflicts that will affect the rest of the story? Right away, I had a good sense of the characters, which were well described and each had a distinct personality. Merlin was particularly enjoyable (like a less grumpy Gandalf), and Arthur and Lancelot were pleasant to read. It was a treat to meet characters I’ve read in romanticized fairy tales presented as ‘real people’ in a novel. Refreshing. Sheng was also a passionate, intelligent young man, and I enjoyed following his adventures.
The writing is quite good. As stated, the characters are well rendered, as are the descriptions of places and events. The fight sequences were quite detailed, and anyone interested in envisioning exactly what is happening would get a kick out of that. I also particularly liked the immersion in Chinese culture, which was presented with enough detail to feel authentic.
My biggest concerns were the following: (POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next paragraph if you are sensitive to spoilers). It made no sense to me that Merlin, after receiving the vision of coming disaster, would disappear like that without giving his *king* notice, especially considering the length of time he was gone. He was the king’s most trusted adviser and friend! And it also amazed me that, after what could have been considered desertion, Arthur had such a weak response to his return. The other issue I struggled with was with how easily Sheng’s father agreed to Merlin’s outrageous request: let his only son leave to save a Queen in a kingdom basically half-way across the world–why should he care? Considering the importance of lineage and honour to many cultures in that time, it seemed unrealistic that after only a long talk (of which no details are shared) that Sheng’s father would agree. I kept waiting for a good explanation for that. Finally, as a reader who is used to third-person limited point of view storytelling, it took time to adapt to the third person omniscient point of view used in this story.
Those points aside, the story is engrossing. Sheng’s personality is fun and he’s always up for adventure, of which there are many good ones in the novel, including his trials to become a night and his quest to save the Queen. Also, I appreciated that Vale chose to write about a main character who is an Other, especially one that is integrated into a traditionally European tale. The Forgotten Knight: A Chinese Warrior in King Arthur’s Court is a very good read and I am happy to recommend it.
Today, I am excited beyond words to introduce to youPiper E McDermot. We met a while ago through the reader-reviewer service known as Authonomy. Piper’s writing is truly some of the most beautiful, visual and sensory I’ve read in ages. But more than that, Piper is a beautiful and humble human being, and getting to know her made me appreciate her writing more. What follows is a reflection of a thoughtful, wonderful soul, fascinating in every way. I quite appreciated her smart and wise thoughts on writing as well. So pull up a seat, and settle in to meet this fabulous writer.
Piper! I’m so glad you agreed to talk with us today. Can you tell us about yourself?
Can I first say thank you for this opportunity, Dyane? You were one of the first to ever read and crit some of my chapters, so it’s quite a thrill to be doing this with you!
You’re welcome. And as noted above, reading your work was my pleasure. 🙂
Righto, then – me, me, me ….Gosh, it’s awkward, and yet the urge to jabber on is so powerful!
Firstly, I’ve chosen to write under the pen name Piper E McDermot in honour of my Irish gran and mum – they are my good-luck charms.
I live in a small seaside village about 50km from Cape Town in South Africa – the physical environment alone is great inspiration, with epic mountains encircling the area, and the ocean just down the road. A husband, a daughter, a son, and two mentally disturbed border collies making up the family menagerie. There used to be several cats, a rat and a seal as well, but they have moved on. We miss them all!
Um…did you say a…seal???
My motto for many years has been that when I am really old, like reeeally ancient, and sitting in my rocking chair on a porch somewhere, I want to look back on life and think that I had a grand old time of it.
I have both a great desire for adventure, and a healthy dose of fear. I think I’ve managed to combine the two nicely by doing things that terrify me, surviving them, and then living for ages off the high that gives me.
Although my formal studies at University were English, Archaeology, and Psychology, I am a firm believer in self-education. If you can read and you have curiosity, you can learn as much as most formal courses of study can teach you.
Wanderlust had me travelling a lot in my youth, but with age has come responsibilities and financial restrictions–but hubby plans to sell up and sail one day soon, and I’m all for it. I even have my yacht skipper’s ticket in preparation!
I’ve never settled down to one ‘career’–I’ve done all sorts, from secretary to sales-rep, from Irish dance teacher to English teacher, and have even worked at the Cape Town Aquarium. (That’s how I ended up with a seal in my dining room – but that’s another story.)
No, no! I want to hear the seal story!!!
More recently, I was a photographer– for 10 years, so I must have been doing something right!
Right now, I wish I were heading to South Africa on a plane. You sound like the coolest person to meet. 🙂
Are you interested in other forms of artistic expression besides writing? Where does writing fit in, and why are you drawn to it? What keeps you motivated/inspired?
Absolutely! In fact, writing is what I’d call the “laat lammetjie” (late lamb) of artistic expression for me. I’ve always felt a bit odd about calling myself an artist, but over the years I’ve tinkered with all sorts–from drawing and painting to rustic jewellery making and constructing furniture. That one was quit a riot–I used to make quirky items for craft markets, and would end up sawing, banging, and hammering until the wee hours of the morning to get things ready in time. At the time I lived in a small block of apartments – needless to say, I wasn’t popular with the neighbors!
For the last ten years I was a photographer–mostly slaving away in the weddings and social events scene, but it was a good time to be involved, as this kind of photography underwent a tremendous transformation from ‘recording’ events to true artistic expression. It was great to be a part of that, and to have contributed in a small way.
With writing–as with all the previous experiments–I think what drew me to it, and keeps me inspired, is the sheer thrill of creation, bringing something to life that simply wasn’t there before. I’m sure there’s all kinds of things a shrink could make of that 🙂
No, no, you’re perfectly normal! (says the other weirdo writer in the room, lol)
What forms of writing and genres do you prefer and why? What can you never see yourself writing?
As a reader, I’ve always been a door-stop novel girl, through and through–if I like it, I want lots of it. Greedy, that’s me! I can remember even as a kid wishing that books would be longer, and would end up re-reading them to keep the experience going. It’s probably not a good thing–the door-stop issue has spilled over into my writing, so editing has become a massive task of cutting things down to a manageable length. Not that I don’t enjoy short stories occasionally–Roald Dahl’s are amongst my favourites.
As for genre, fantasy in the style of Tolkien, Hobb, and Zimmer-Bradley are my staples, but historical fiction is another favourite. As a young teen I devoured all of James Michener’s work–now those are real doorstops for you. What I didn’t realise until recently is what a sci-fi geek I am–it’s only when I did one of those silly surveys on favourite books and films that I realised how much sci-fi I love.
What could I never see myself writing…hmm…a book on good housekeeping! Domestic duties are low on my priority list most of the time, but are rock bottom since I’ve been writing. The family suffers through it with great tolerance…bless them.
(Coughs) I know nothing about that last one at all. Nothing at all, do you hear me?
I’ve read books which annoyed me to the point where I wanted to throw them across the room. As a reader, what do you think makes a good story? What’s one thing a ‘bad’ book taught you to not do in your own writing?
This made me laugh! I think the only book I’ve ever literally thrown across the room was Dan Brown’sThe Da Vinci Code – sorry, Mr. Brown! Not because of his writing style, or even the story, exactly. As an adventure/conspiracy thriller, it certainly had the power to hook readers in–it hooked me. What infuriated me was the way in which (in my opinion) he had piggy-backed on excellent and extensive research by dozens of serious investigators, and turned it all into a shallow, cheap thrill. You see, one of my other life-long passions has been reading and researching ancient ‘mysteries’– it’s one of the reasons I studied Archaeology at University. Dan Brown’s book(s) certainly raised popular interest and awareness, but I feel they also managed to relegate the topic to the level of the lunatic fringe. That infuriates me! It could just be all the subsequent hype around those books, but I was left with the sense that Mr. Brown did not truly respect the researchers or the material on which he based his books.
Apologies–that was a rant, wasn’t it?
Rants are accepted. I did ask the question, right? (Hides Mr. Brown’s books behind my back while moving on to the next topic…)
If I had to take this specific example and figure out what it has taught me not to do, I guess I would say “Be extremely cautious. Be respectful.” In my case, I’ve drawn much of my inspiration from various indigenous peoples’ mythology, including Celtic legends, so I’ve tried to respect and honour them without ‘rewriting’ them. I wanted to be sure that I was clearly making my own world and story so that I don’t end up treading on anyone’s cultural toes. I think that’s why I write in the fantasy genre – you have the freedom to use those influences, but also to make them your own.
Very good point.
As a writer, what elements do you find are the most crucial to include in your stories? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I didn’t really answer your question about what makes a good story, so I’ll try to work out what I feel is crucial…erm…*steam emits from ears*… Food? I read LOTR 11 times during high school alone, and some of my favourite scenes were when the hobbits were eating, or making something to eat. Could be a result of cross-identification–tough times in high school = comfort food!
Seriously, though–at a details level, I feel the reading experience should be immersive, so that the reader can literally open the door in their mind and step into another world, with all the range of possible experiences at least given a passing nod during the tale. We want a fantasy to be just that–to take us elsewhere–but there has to be those elements of reality that allow us to hook into and care about the characters.
Of course, the characters themselves are the keystones–I believe reading is largely role-playing. We don’t want our characters impossibly perfect, because we are not perfect. Even the character we are supposed to fall in love with needs his/her flaws, so that we can feel that perhaps, someday, somewhere, this person might really exist. At the same time, whatever their flaws may be, they have to be presented in a way that the reader can imagine themselves behaving like that, feeling like that, in whatever circumstances we throw at our characters.
Equally important to me is sub-text–what is going on in the mind behind the characters’ dialogue, or in the plot behind the narrative. In real life we seldom present ourselves–our motives, thoughts, and feelings–straight out and with 100% honesty. There are things going on behind what we say and do whose influence may be recognisable, but are not stated. I think it’s crucial that characters in the first place have this element to their make-up, and in the second place that we trust readers to recognise it when and where it shows up. Sub-text applies equally to plot or the ‘stakes’ in a story–everything needn’t be spelled out repeatedly just in case the reader missed it the first time. It’s a fine line to walk between mystery and confusion, but it’s important to try! Sub-text adds layers of richness and complexity–and ultimately reader engagement–that makes for a more satisfying experience.
I’m so glad you spoke about sub-text. I agree that it’s an essential but also difficult tool to use in one’s writing.
Who/what are the biggest influences in your writing? How do they influence what your write?
Wow – the list could get quite long here! Starting from when I read Elyne Mitchell’sSilver Brumby series as a 7yr old, works like Watership Down, T.H. White, Rosemary Sutcliffe, LOTR,Herbert’sDune series, Jean M Auels’Earth’s Children series, Marion Zimmer-Bradley and more recently Robin Hobb stand out–but pretty much most of the now classic, fantasy series authors. I guess as a chronic reader of series in this genre, I was bound to end up writing one!
What appeals to me about a series is the scope to follow a character across lengthy periods of time–to experience and grow with them. And of course, a series allows room for plenty of twist and turns in the plot.
A couple of years ago I discovered Dianna Gabaldon’s historical time-travel series. She’s an incredibly talented writer, doing vast amounts of research that she slips seamlessly into the story, so that the reader is barely conscious of it. It’s always about the characters, and how they cope with what she throws at them via the plot. I especially admire the way in which she doesn’t shy away from the ranges of human emotion or behaviour–she plumbs the depths. More prosaically, her female lead does in fact have everyday concerns like feminine hygiene and going to the loo in the 18th century!
You have great taste. I’m so glad you mentioned Dune—it’s one of my all-time favorite books/series, and Auel’s series directly influenced the series I’m writing now.
What draws you to your preferred genre? What do you think makes your genre unique? And why is it so popular?
I was a strange child. We used to live in the UK, and my favourite thing even as a 5 or 6yr old was to go and visit ancient ruins and castles–even old graveyards were fine in a pinch! It was the air of mystery, the sense of the past still reaching out across time, and trying to imagine who those people were and what they were like, that enthralled me. More than that though, it was an odd sense of ‘connection’. I love what George Martin said about fantasy and historical fiction–that they are ‘sisters under the skin’. That rings true to me. I’m fascinated by the past, and epic or ‘high’ fantasy usually incorporates that sense of the bygone.
I think that desire to connect to our past, to our roots, is what makes both historical and fantasy fiction popular. Fantasy fiction is often poked fun at for its ‘tropes’–but I think those very tropes are what give it its appeal. There are certain archetypes in all mythology that seem to resonate with us–well, most of us–as human beings, and I think that good fantasy usually manages to tap into that psychology.
On the other hand, the label ‘fantasy’ does tend to put some readers off, as if fantasy were something for children or teens rather than adults. For years I’ve been telling my parents how some of the best writing I’ve ever come across is in the fantasy genre. They never believed me until I managed to drag them off to see the first LOTR movie. I still haven’t managed to convince them to read a fantasy book, but they are now avid fans of the Game of Thrones TV series. *sigh* I will not give up!
Can you tell us about your books? What other projects are you working on?
The Seventh Gate is the first book in a projected series of four. From a character perspective, it follows a relationship across the course of many years and explores how a romance grows into a more seasoned and mature love, and what it takes to keep that love alive in the face of circumstances delivered up by the plot. In terms of the plot, I have always had a great fascination with the Arthurian saga–and particularly the mystery around its origins. The Seventh Gate is–to a degree–based on indications that the Arthurian romance of the Middle Ages, and even the earlier Dark Ages oral tales, may well have had their roots in far older Celtic mythology, in the myths of the Celtic gods and the Invasion Cycles of Ireland.
So … to put it in a Twitter catch-phrase, perhaps it’s “Ancient Celtic Aliens meets King Arthur in an epic, time-slip love story.” I think I might hate that–I’ll let you know!
Right now, the book is in its final round of editing, and The Summer Wife (book 2) is about to go through the same. Then all my focus will be on finishing books 3 and 4.
I do have some other ideas on the back-burner–perhaps some short stories covering Elen’s journey to and early life with the Aniwaya (the people from whom my female MC, Nyani, comes), or some spin-off tales concerning the Aniwaya. Beta-readers seem to have really enjoyed what little of these people is shown in the book, so it might be worth expanding on them.
Another completely separate project that’s brewing purely in my mind at the moment is one based here in Africa…
I have to say, that of all the books I read on Authonomy, The Seventh Gate was one of the most beautiful. In my head, I can still remember the sound of the water as it slipped past the boat and the oars in the chapter I read. That was years ago and I still remember it to this day. Readers, this is a book you must have, once it’s available.
Why is promoting/connecting with other writers important to you?
Writing is a lonely business–all that time spent inside your own head! It’s important to me to connect with other writers not just for feedback, but for that emotional support and empathy–we get each other, no matter which genre we write in!
Aside from that I believe in paying it forward, these days Indie authors need to really stand together and support one another. The market is tough, crowded, and in a state of flux. I really believe that working together will always have a better outcome than remaining isolated and purely competitive. I think of it like this–I love Robin Hobb’s fantasy books, so if she were to recommend another fantasy author, I would probably buy that book. Would I then not buy her books anymore? Of course not! Her support for someone else will not lose her my business–and I think that’s something we new, Indie authors need to remember. Sharing the love doesn’t mean you will receive less of it yourself 🙂 Plus I think for many of us, our first readers come from within our author community–we can help each other up that first step towards regular, reader-only fans.
What do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing and how do you cope with it?
Coffee addiction–getting up to put the kettle on every half hour is very distracting! I think the hardest part for me has been switching into editing mode too soon. I really wish I hadn’t discovered Authonomy and critiques until I had finished writing all the books in the series. Switching back into full writing mode is tough at the moment–I need to find a way to turn off the internal editor and just write.
I know all about that. Sigh…
What advice would you give to new writers, especially those looking to break into your genre?
If you haven’t read a lot of fantasy–go and do that first! Chances are, though, that a writer is an avid reader, so I would say that when you start to write your story, keep going until it is finished. Don’t read anyone else’s work while you are still busy writing–whether a published author or someone in a crit group. It’s bound to either make you feel inadequate and insecure (published books) or maybe even worse, over-confident (crit groups). Get your story down, then worry about measuring it against all else that’s out there.
Soon it will be the place for readers to go and discover everything about the characters and worlds of The Seventh Gate. For now, it’s a place to pop in and say hello, and perhaps enjoy some of the art, music, and mythology that have helped to inspire me.
Piper, you did great! I loved getting to know you and of your fascinating life–you really have to tell me the seal story later, lol. Readers, I hope you felt the same way I did about Piper and that you will look her up at her links or drop her a line in the Comments section below. 🙂