To Know the Dark




Today is one of those days.

It isn’t a normal day in the Once household, a humdrum day, your average nine to five. No, today is a red letter day. A shield day. A day that we will remember.

Fetch me a chair and some smelling salts. I am publishing a new book today. So today’s blog is going to be a shameless book plug. I am truly sorry if that comes across as tacky and needy that, but – hey – an author’s got to eat.

I don’t really want to tell you what the book is about. Because I believe that part of the fun of a book is the unknown – the way that a story unfolds in ways you don’t expect.

I have a love-hate relationship with science fiction and fantasy. Fantasy ought to be, well, fantastical. The author should show me a world I haven’t seen before. Something new, something different. I want to be intrigued.

And all too often we simply don’t get that from fantasy. What we get instead is a medieval adventure mixed with magic. Swords, chain-mail armour, dragons, wizards. Sound familiar? You might think Game of Thrones. You might think Harry Potter. You might think Tolkien. But in truth what are doing is rehashing and rerehashing the stories of King Arthur.

King Arthur’s magic sword Excalibur gave us Aragorn’s sword Anduril and Luke’s light sabre. Oh, and Harry’s wand.

Merlin became Gandalf became Obi-Wan became Dumbledore.

Arthur had a famous Daddy called Uther Pendragon. Aragorn was Isildur’s heir. Luke’s pappy was Darth “I am your father” Vader. Harry’s parents were famous wizards.

Then we have the prophecies. Oh no, not the prophecies. Anything but the prophecies. I’ll take the rack instead. Thumb screws. Listening to One Direction. Water torture. Please, spare me the horror of the prophecies…

It’s all King Arthur’s fault. You see, when the Arthurian stories were first “written” (or more likely, spoken), just about everyone believed in destiny. Your life was more or less decided for you when you were born.

This meant that King Arthur was always going to be King Arthur. He didn’t have the chance to make a career choice and be a plumber instead. He wasn’t about to go through gender reassignment and announce that he wanted to be known as Guinevere.

Nope, Arthur was destined to be King. And so was Aragorn. And Luke. And Harry.

We don’t believe in that sort of stuff any more. Most modern stories talk about characters who achieve things through their own efforts and skills. They make decisions which affect their lives. They don’t do things simply because of fate. James Bond defeats Spectre because of the particular set of skills that he has learned over many years. He doesn’t do it because of fate, destiny, prophecy or because his father was a famous spy.

And that is one of the problems with fantasy. It has become formulaic. It makes me want to scream from the rooftops – fantasy does not have to be set in medieval England!

Just as we need to tell the Scots to step away from the film Braveheart, we need to tell fantasy writers and readers to back off from Arthur and Tolkien. We’ve done that. To death.

While I am on this soapbox, there’s another thing that bugs me. Exposition. Long-winded gobbets of information about the world of the story and what has happened in the past.

Writers of fantasy need some exposition. If we invent a new world, we need to tell the reader how this world works. But too much exposition makes us feel like we are reading Wikipedia. Or we have characters explaining things to each other that they really ought to know.

There is more, much more. Why do the heroes nearly always have to be men? Why is there usually a clean dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys? Why is everything always so neatly explained where every enemy has a clearly identifiable weakness? Why do we have to roam around the countryside finding long lost artefacts?

So I asked myself a question. How many of those elements could I take out of a fantasy novel and still have an enjoyable story?

Throw away the medieval setting.

Dispense with the magical swords, rings, amulets.

Have a female lead character.

Junk the prophecies.

Blur the edges between good and evil.

Tone down the exposition as much as possible.

The result is “To Know the Dark”. It is set in a world which is both familiar and new. Part of the fun is exploring this new world and not knowing what you will find. There are monsters here, but they are most certainly not dragons. There are famous weapons, but they have become famous because of what people have done with them.

Most of all, the book is about Kori, a young girl with extraordinary powers that she does not understand. Her role may be to save the world or to destroy it. She does not know. There is no convenient prophecy to tell her.

It is fantasy, Jim, but not as we know it. Experimental. Edgy. Mysterious. How many stock elements can you take out of a fantasy novel and still have a story?

I ought to issue a disclaimer at this point. If you have read my other books you might be expecting another first person comedy. Not this time. To Know the Dark is written in third person and is much more serious.


To Know the Dark is available for kindle from Amazon. Here are the links:

The UK

The US

While we are chatting, I ought to give another update on my free giveaway for Love, Death and Tea. About a week after the promo, we have had:

  • 4,000 free downloads during the promotion
  • 3,000 pages read in Kindle Unlimited
  • 9 new sales (including 2 pre-orders of To Know the Dark)
  • 3 new reviews on Amazon and Goodreads
  • 2 fan emails.

I am quietly happy with that. Of course, you want the numbers to have lots of zeroes after them. But this isn’t an overnight success sort of deal. We are building slowly, one reader at a time. That will do nicely for me, thank you very much.


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