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Saturday, September 5, 2020

SPFBO: Interview with Dominic Adler (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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Order Timberwolf over HERE

Today we have the pleasure of Dominic Adler visiting us and chatting about his SPFBO entry Timberwolf. Timberwolf was in Adam's lot and while it unfortunately was cut, it left an indelible impression on Adam and me. It's a fantastic spy thriller set in a secondary fantasy world that's modeled on 1930s Germany with Gods playing games. Think City Of Stairs meets Fatherland and you'll have an inkling of what to expect. Dominic talks about his beginnings, his previous work and what inspired him to write this fantastic story.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Dominic. To begin with, could you tell us a little about yourself, your background & your interests?

DA: Hi, thanks for having me. I’m Dominic Adler and I write thrillers and speculative fiction. After college and a stint in the army reserves, I joined the Metropolitan Police here in London. I ended up serving for 25 years. More importantly, I am a proud uber-geek – I love gaming, movies, SF and Fantasy of all stripes, tanks and armoured vehicles, otters, dad jokes and beer. I’m an avid horology nut too (in case you’re wondering, today I’m wearing a vintage Seiko 6306 from 1978).

Q] What inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, and why you chose to go the self-publishing route?

DA: I’ve been writing since I was nine or ten, the sort of stuff that gets your parents called to school for a chat (true story, I did a riff on the Moses in the bulrushes story that got a bit, er, Friday the 13th). Later, I tried my hand at student journalism.

Joining the police led to a bit of an interregnum – it’s not a great place for writers, as everything has to be vetted, even stuff that’s got nothing to do with policing. Writing a book about baking cakes? You have to fill out a form and submit the script so someone can check it doesn’t upset anyone. Nonetheless, the urge to write got too strong; I found an agent, played the vetting / submitting game and managed to get three espionage thrillers published by an indie (the Cal Winter series).

After I left the police, I was able to do what I liked. When I decided to wear two hats – thriller writer and fantasy writer, I decided to self-publish the fantasy side. I wanted to work on a project where I was in charge.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of Timberwolf occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea?

DA: I’ve no idea why I began writing about the roguish son of a circus knife-thrower. He was called Axel Geist, and he popped into my head from nowhere. Then other characters appeared – Roland, a former boxer, undertaker and encyclopedia salesman who finds himself imprisoned for his sexuality. Then there’s Otto Kamner, a fanatical Timberwolf officer, dark paladin of the Stassian regime. Kirsten zu Dahlenbourg, a scientist who wraps Axel around her little finger. And the star of the show – Bassarus, Old God of Deceit and Duke of Hell. Bassarus is half Frank-N-Furter, half Loki from the Avengers, a swaggering trickster, braggart and ne’er do well.

And at the back of my mind was the ‘Wolfhound Century’ trilogy by Peter Higgins, set in an alternative Soviet Union that isn’t. Axel, I decided, would be from an analogue of late-Weimar Germany. So much fantasy takes place in faux-medieval settings, which is fine, but I’m seeing more writers explore different timelines – Joe Abercrombie’s world, for example, is in the early throes of an industrial revolution as magic fades. If you look at Peter McLean’s ‘Priest of Bones’ you’ll see a near Georgian / early industrial vibe too. And Django Wexler’s been writing great Napoleonic-esque fantasy for a while.

So I thought to myself, okay, the mid-20th Century’s where I’m setting up camp. I ended up with a phantasmagoria of things I adored about thrillers and fantasy – a mashup of 1930s noir with Sven Hassell-style grimdark battle scenes and a Moorcockian servant-of-the-Gods-vibe. Timberwolf took eighteen months to write and was part labour of love, part exercise in crazy self-indulgence. Believe it or not, once I got an editor, I reigned some of it in. Thanks, Mandy, you’re a star.

(Chernobyl poster courtesy of Federico Mauro)

Q] Timberwolf seems to be the first volume of the so far unnamed series. Could you give us a progress report on the sequel, offer any hints about it and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

DA: My plan was to write a fantasy cycle inspired by mid-20th century history, encompassing a timeline that goes all the way from Dieselpunk to Cassette Futurism. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so found myself fascinated by the fandom that grew up around the HBO series ‘Chernobyl’ (which makes me feel old). Well, buckle up, I’ve got a fantasy series that’ll take you all the way there – I’m writing the second book right now. You’ll learn more about the Dominion and the Immaculata of Pyr, plus Axel ends up in the Stassian-occupied casino city of San Remy. He’s looking fabulous in a tuxedo, sipping cocktails with his succubus sidekick, Hexberyn of the Dusk-Sworn.

Q] When did you first hear about SPFBO? What spurred you on to enter SPFBO?

DA: I’ve been following SPFBO for a while via the Grimdark Facebook group. I’ve enjoyed entries by Rob Hayes and Jonathan French, plus I totally called Orconomics as a winner. The utter brutality of SPFBO appealed to me, I suspected I never stood a chance but threw my hat in the ring anyway. SPFBO, to me, is like an extended online version of the Edinburgh Festival for indie fantasy. I think that’s pretty special, so cheers to all the bloggers who put in so much graft to make it happen, and to Mark Lawrence for putting it together. Group hug (oh, that’s not allowed right now, is it? Make it a virtual hug).

Q] It is a tad difficult to classify your book. If I had to come up with an elevator pitch for it, I would try “Fatherland meets City Of Stairs” knowing that it doesn’t capture the essence precisely. What’s your elevator pitch? Is there a specific sub-genre you would classify it as?

DA: I think a good start would be your very own Adam Weller’s description – ‘Bananas.’ My pitch would probably be, “look, let’s have a three-bottle lunch and talk this through. It’s too strange for an elevator.” To be serious, though, it’s a science-fantasy romp with an unreliable narrator, lots of action, a grimdark WW2 espionage vibe and a sprinkling of Lovecraftian weird. Oh, and it’s funny in places too.

Q] Let’s talk about your book’s genre. Technically it’s a dieselpunk spy thriller as well as a secondary fantasy that’s set in a land which is very much similar to 1930s Germany. Can you tell us more about the world, the history of the Stassian nation, its neighbours and the peculiarities of the world?

DA: Okay, the world is split in two by a belt of poisoned, impassable desert called the Scoria. People figure it’s the result of some magical accident, but they’re not sure. Most scholars suspect the Old Gods’ involvement somehow, so in most places worshipping them is frowned upon, if not illegal. Anyhow, north of the Scoria is the continent of Geskander, to the south is a sprawling federation called the Dominion. They’re 12000 miles apart, and the only way to travel between them is via ultra-fast blink trains controlled by the Dominion. The blink train network is an ancient artefact, restored by a deity known as The Redeemer.

Stassia seeks to control the whole of Geskander and keeps invading her neighbours (known as the Triptych states). Last time this happened was during the Honour War, which the Dominion joined at the last minute, humiliating Stassia. This led to the rise of a nationalistic authoritarian government in Stassia (yes, it’s modelled mainly on 1930s fascism, but with a sprinkling of Stalinist tropes too). Twenty-odd years after that war, the Stassians are ready to try again. Enter the Old Gods, a mysterious and selfish bunch, and a big part of the story.

Q] Let’s talk about the religious aspect of your world. You have these old gods who are present and no longer worshipped. But the main characters don’t really talk about what replaces the gods. Was this intentional? What can you say about this world and religious set up which you have introduced?

DA: Yes, it’s entirely intentional. The deity recognized north and south of the Scoria is the Redeemer. He was a sorcerer who, by eschewing magic, restored the blink line. Then he disappeared, asking only that people follow his teachings. So he’s a benign, non-interventionist kind of deity. Yet the question remains – who or what is the Redeemer? A god, or something else? In my world there are Baroons, liches who seek to bridge the gap between sorcery and science, god and mortal. Was the Redeemer among their number? Scriptures were destroyed, people are trying to figure out the past; I wanted it to be ambiguous and mysterious. The Old Gods hate this. They crave devotion to fuel their powers. They lurk in the shadows, trying to influence mortals to do their bidding. Sorcery, in my world, is a gift from the Old Gods.

Q] So for someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write, what would be your pitch for Timberwolf?

DA: If you enjoy military / espionage thrillers, you might like the Cal Winter series. They feature gunfights, gadgets, Parapolitics, London locations, information warfare and real-world espionage, as seen through the eyes of a near-junkie private military contractor / indentured assassin. It’s noirish and laced with dark humour. I try and capture that old ensemble vibe with lots of characters – if you like movies like ‘Where Eagles Dare’ or ‘Ronin’, you might like my stuff too. I’ve also written a post-apocalyptic detective novel set in London called ‘Dark as Angels’. That’s been described as a mashup of ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Die Hard’ with a dash of ‘Luther’. As for Timberwolf? Bond-meets-Lovecraft-meets WW2 action movie. With some Indiana Jones.

Q] Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Your cover is stark and very much thriller-esque. Can you tell our readers about the idea behind its inception & how you worked with your designer for the finished product?

DA: I’m one of those writers who prefers to let people do what they’re good at – and I’m not a cover designer or an editor or a formatter. I sent Peter (from some blurb and he sent me more or less the cover you see now. I think I asked the font to be tweaked but that’s about it. He also did the cover for ‘Dark as Angels’, he’s an easy guy to work with, a real pro.

Q] So what can readers expect from this book/series and what should they be looking forward to according to you?

DA: I hope people enjoy Axel Geist’s adventures, the cast of characters I’ve created and the world-building behind Timberwolf. There’s sorcery, romance, war, intrigue, panzers, state surveillance and a stuffed badger called Hans. Having said that, I think you can enjoy Timberwolf on a number of levels – there’s lots of details to pore over and Easter eggs be found, but if you simply want to go along for the ride that’s cool too.

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

DA: Thanks for the interview, it was fun. I’d like to say two things – good luck to the SPFBO semifinalists, and for those about to join me on the slush pile… I salute you! Secondly, a shout-out to my editor Mandy Crook from She’s great fun to work with and has an eye for detail I’d die for. Hopefully she’ll be part of the team for the next Axel Geist story too.



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