AJ Smith has been writing stories set in the lands of The Long War since he was at university. Defining the world and adding detail became an excellent distraction from his degree (which was in psychology, philosophy and sociology) and has remained equally distracting ever since. Interestingly, the maps came first, and then the world and its characters began to take shape in the writing. Since graduating, Tony has been working with troubled children in a high school in Luton and has had various articles related to counselling and youth work published. Fantasy fiction has always been his own version of therapy and a place where he can make up what happens next rather than waiting for the real world to decide.
The city of Ro Canarn burns. The armies of the Red march upon the northern lords. And the children of a dead god are waking from their long slumber… The Duke of Canarn is dead, executed by the King’s decree. The city lies in chaos, its people starving, sickening, and tyrannized by the ongoing presence of the King’s mercenary army. But still hope remains: the Duke’s children, the Lord Bromvy and Lady Bronwyn, have escaped their father’s fate.
Separated by enemy territory, hunted by the warrior clerics of the One God, Bromvy undertakes to win back the city with the help of the secretive outcasts of the Darkwald forest, the Dokkalfar. The Lady Bronwyn makes for the sanctuary of the Grass Sea and the warriors of Ranen with the mass of the King’s forces at her heels. And in the mountainous region of Fjorlan, the High Thain Algenon Teardrop launches his Dragon Fleet against the Red Army. Brother wars against brother in this, the epic first volume of the long war.
2013 seems to be a year for Début fantasy novels for me, and they have all been fantastic books so far (Luke Scull, Stella Gemmell, Nathan Hawke), so how does the Black Guard stand up against those other débuts?
Like The City by Stella Gemmell it took me a little while to get into this book, maybe its the risk of a début author landing such a hefty tome in my lap, at 640 pages its a serious expression of trust from the publisher Head of Zeus, and an announcement that they think they have a real winner on their hands, and for me a big time commitment with so many great books out there.
So how did it shape up? For me, I felt the style was on the epic fantasy scale, Brandon Sanderson, Tolkien style. Where my personal preference is more Gemmellesque. But at the same time the characters are very much to my liking, they are realistic, likeable and natural rather than the average OTT fantasy drone. So has AJ Smith hit his own niche part Gemmell part Sanderson? I’m not 100% sure, I don’t think I read enough fantasy these days to be totally sure, I need more maybe when I see book 2?
The story however is very clever even though it takes a bit of time to get there, but when it does get going it keeps you turning the pages at a rapid pace, so much so that you will hardly realise the size of the book, and when the book ends it leaves you slightly bereft, needing more and knowing while there will be, its not going to be for at least a year.
There are clear signs in the book and writing of a true fantasy geek (not an insult) a man who has spent time becoming passionate with his genre and then building a world in his mind. Its that passion and desire to get his world down on paper I think that slows down the first third of the book, but it really is called for, that description pays off, that world building is key and I feel we will reap more rewards from it as this series continues.
In Summary read this book, you will find a book of subtle writing skill, with deep, careful world building and colourful real characters, written in a style all of his own.
I for one recommend this book and look forward to the next book in the series.
Questions & Answers
1) Why Fantasy?
I’m always thinking “what happens next”. With contemporary stuff (and the real world) there are hundreds of things telling you what should or must happen next. With fantasy, there are admitted tropes and accepted rules, but on the whole you can do what you like. What happens next is entirely dictated by the world laws you’ve created.
2) Was this the first world, or are there some lost hidden gems that have not seen the light of day?
The world is massive. There are nations and empires – some pretty extreme – still to be discovered by men. I’ve got a truck-load of maps from roleplaying games and short stories that explore some weird-arse places to the east of Tor Funweir. Volkast to the north and Jekka to the east are at least as big as the lands of men.
3) Give us some background on your fantasy geekage (yes… go on admit it… it will make you feel better)?
I’m all about geek-chic, baby!
I’ve been roleplaying for years – Shadowrun, World of Darkness, Cthulhu, D&D – being a geek is just embracing a need for escapism. I say to you, my brothers and sisters, freak freely.
4) What led you into writing?
It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s the only thing I do that doesn’t make me feel like a should be doing something else. Weirdly, I only started writing fantasy a couple of years ago – although the world was already in place from roleplaying and my pathological love of drawing maps. Before that I tended toward surreal black comedy. I always wrote short stories and thought that, when I “worked out” how to write a book, I’d write loads. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to write more fantasy and non-fantasy.
5) Who is your fav author (to read)?
Big question. It’s largely mood dependent, but Douglas Adams, Michael Marshall Smith and H.P Lovecraft are probably my favourites.
6) Can you give us a some book two hints?
It’s called The Dark Blood. It was finished straight after The Black Guard and I’m nearly done with the third one – called The Red Prince. I write pretty quickly (much to my editor’s dismay).
As for hints: Rham Jas goes on a killing spree with an old friend. The battle for Ranen continues and we see more of the dark denizens of the world.
7) If you could have written any book in history which would it be?
Pretentious answer: Das Capital by Karl Marx.
Truthful answer: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
In a different life: Anything by Christopher Hitchens.
8) In your own words sell The Black Guard…..
I have five children who are starving and I’m massively in debt… please give generously (None of this is true).
I want people to become immersed in the world. I hope that it grows and grows from page one, unveiling sections of the world and plot as it goes. It’s the first part of a (probably) four book series and they should all build from this, giving the world more depth and the reader more immersion.
If there’s not a kind of fantasy called “Immersive Fantasy”, I want to invent it.