Some might think that crime fiction writing and writing epic fantasy adventure may not be a natural fit, but when I heard that the latest Alex Barclay novel, Curse of Kings, her debut YA novel, would be launched at the National Library of Ireland last week, I couldn’t wait to catch up with this bestselling author, and also to read the first novel in ‘The Trials of Oland Born –Curse of Kings’.
But first a little bit about this amazing epic fantasy. Described by Harper Collins as being in the tone of The Hobbit, this thrilling story introduces fourteen-year-old Oland Born, who lives in dark times, in a world ruled by evil tyrant, Villius Ren. Villius and his fearsome bloodthirsty army have wrecked the prosperous kingdom of Decresian, once ruled by good King Micah. Oland himself has been kept as Villius’s servant in grim Castle Derrington, and he knows little about his past – or why Villius keeps such a sharp eye on him. One night, Oland finds a letter addressed to him, from the long-dead king. No sooner has he read the message than a mysterious stranger tries to kidnap him. Oland runs, the dead king’s warning ringing in his ears…If Oland is to live he must restore the shattered kingdom. This is his quest. This is his curse. The trials of Oland Born begin. . .
And boy did they begin! The setting is hugely atmospheric from the beginning, with everything you want from an epic fantasy tale, a world of medieval castles, Romanesque games arenas, supernatural forests and harsh seas, with terrifying hybrid creatures and monsters abound. The protagonist, Oland Born, as well as embarking on a terrifying quest, develops a strong friendship with his new companion, Delphi, who has her own dark secrets. Within the Curse of Kings, magic intertwines with scientific discoveries, showing dangers and wonders in each, bringing us as readers into an epic story described by Derek Landy as ‘fiercely imaginative, with razor-sharp twists and a plot that moves so fast it ignites.’
The YouTube Trailer for Curse of Kings, with its own original score, gives you a flavour of the book:
As I entered the fictional world of the Curse of Kings, spiralling my way from the atmospheric start, right the way through to the electric twists and turns, especially those in the closing pages, Barclay’s ability to create beautifully convincing settings, with well-developed characters that a reader can connect with, is in no doubt. The adventures of Oland Born as they continue through further novels, will be an unfolding story that I for one will certainly be following.
When I caught up with Alex at the historic National Library, a location which echoes with many stories of its own, Alex’s obvious love for this exotic and dangerous fantasy world, the characters within it, and the children who in part inspired this novel, was palpable in her emotional address to those present. Looking like a beautiful fantasy princess in salmon pink, the bleak darkness of crime fiction writing was left aside to discuss the world of Oland Born, a world which Alex Barclay has been living with inside her head for the past three years.
When I asked her how the characters of Oland and Delphi came to be, she smiled back, saying very simply, ‘by magic’.
And perhaps that’s how all great characters should arrive! But Alex also told me that Oland and Delphi did in fact arrive almost simultaneously. She knew how and where Oland would live and what his quest would be, and very quickly created the riddle Oland had to solve, and also knew how the quest would end. The rest of the story evolved as she wrote the manuscript, and unusually for her, she said, ‘barely a word of the prologue changed along the way’.
Nonetheless, despite this almost instinctive connection to the story from the beginning, when I pushed Alex for tips on writing fantasy, she highlighted the trials she had encountered along the way, ‘Don’t underestimate the power of the beast that is a fantasy novel.’ she said, ‘keep track of everything in a way that suits you (I have a Trials of Oland Born “bible”). Draw if you can, if it helps you,’ and ‘make decisions, make tough ones.’
During the writing of Curse of Kings, a friend of Alex’s made a very keen observation about fantasy writers, saying that, ‘they are incapable of giving a simple answer to a question about their plot.’ When someone is kindly enquiring about your work, the fantasy writer, Alex’s friend noted, cannot resist explaining the world/creatures/magic, etc in its entirety. As a crime writer, Alex said, she didn’t have this issue, as she could condense a plot into a few lines. As a fantasy writer, she admits, ‘I put my hand up and say that it’s hard not to contextualise everything. So my advice is – rein it in, if you can for the sake of your loved ones… I eventually reduced it to: Curse of Kings is the story of a fourteen-year-old boy on a quest to save the kingdom. I apologise to everyone I met before I reached this point…’
Anyone who has ever met Alex Barclay, (award winning author of five bestselling crime novels) in person recognises pretty early on how lovely a person she is both inside and out. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Alex a number of times before, and she has always been amazingly encouraging regarding the creative process. Speaking to me for this article, again she was very willing to share some of the techniques she used in writing Curse of Kings as compared to her crime writing process. She told me, ‘I used different typefaces for each genre (Gill for crime, Optima for fantasy), different software during the early stages (Word for crime, Scrivener for fantasy). With the crime novels, I created what I call a “timeline” for my first book, Darkhouse, the format of which I still use for crime: under each chapter number I write a synopsis of each scene that features in it. This is because I don’t write chronologically and because I always interweave several plot lines and shift revelations about until I’m happy. Because Curse of Kings is a linear storyline and I wrote it chronologically, I didn’t need to use this; there were no interwoven plots: the reader is with the hero the entire time. But I did use a timeline in the traditional sense to track the events in the kingdom and the surrounding lands over two centuries (the first century is backstory).’
Alex revealed that she feels creatively very free when writing, saying it was a reflection of how blessed she is to have Harper Collins as a publisher and the great relationships she has with both her crime editor, Sarah Hodgson, and her children’s editor, Rachel Denwood. Fantasy offers real opportunities for creative freedom, as Alex says, ‘writing fantasy is an extraordinary experience, and one that creates a whole new ‘workload’, if I could ever call it that. In crime there are, perhaps, several possible answers to a question I might ask myself about a character or event. In fantasy, the possibilities are endless. In both genres, my job is to pick what I think will be the most dramatic and entertaining. But in fantasy, the wealth of offerings to choose from really extends the working day…’
Dramatic and entertaining, Curse of Kings certainly is, and with the roots of many great things forming in childhood, it was no surprise to hear from Alex that her favourite author as a child was Enid Blyton, and the first book from the fantasy genre that really excited her, was The Enchanted Wood. She was about seven when she read it and she absolutely adored it, and still does! Alex told me she had re-read it a few years ago and all the images came back to her. ‘It was extraordinary,’ she said, ‘the idea that an author’s creation can make such an impression decades later, is incredible.’ No doubt it must be both a wonderful and daunting experience for a writer to create a story which will carry from childhood to adulthood, and perhaps in writing this epic tale, Alex has created another piece of magic, one that will withstand the test of time as all great story telling does.
I couldn’t let Alex go with asking her about how she decides which genre she will write when she sits down at her desk and has several projects on the go, and with her utter honesty and enthusiasm, she told me that she always follows her heart, so if – ‘in the morning – I awoke with a cowboy in my head and the beginnings of a western epic, I’d go for it. I’m open to everything.’
Curse of Kings is available in all good bookshops and to order online via Amazon