Tag Archives: Grimdark

#SPFBO Interview: Mark Lawrence, Author of Prince of Thorns


Mark Lawrence. If you’re familiar with the “grimdark” subgenre of fantasy, you’re probably well aware of his work, most notably the international bestseller Prince of Thorns. He’s up there with some of the best and most well-known fantasy authors out there. However, as I got into the indie fantasy scene, I noticed him being brought up with even more frequency.

As it turns out, Mark doesn’t just work in the trad publishing space, but also hosts the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, a contest for indie genre authors. Having covered the SPFBO a bit in prior posts, I was curious to see what inspired Mark to start it, as well as his thoughts on other related topics.

MARTIN: So for those who are new to all this, what exactly is SPFBO?

MARK: The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is a contest that exists to shine a light on self-published fantasy. Ten blogs judge 300 books each year to find ten finalists and one winner. It exists to find excellent books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It aims to help readers select, from the enormous range of options, books that have a better chance of entertaining them than a random choice, thereby increasing reader faith in finding a quality self-published read.

MARTIN: As most fantasy readers are no doubt aware, you’re traditionally-published, and an international bestseller. So what got you into the indie scene?

MARK: I think it arose through a combination of survivor’s guilt and the fact that I enjoy competitions. I always felt traditional publishing to be a lottery and, when I got a “big” book deal, I never believed it to be because I was somehow head and shoulders better than all the others striving to be in the same place. I encountered a number of self-published authors after being published myself and, before being published I interacted with many unpublished writers on critique forums, so I knew that the reservoir of top class talent out there was huge. I also saw how hard it is for a book, regardless of quality, to somehow show itself above the noise barrier when so many titles are competing for attention. A brilliant book can fail utterly, but that same book, with even a modest publicity push can take off.

The SPFBO was just a small way of offering an extra chance, a way to find great books irrespective of the author’s personal marketing skills and to bring them to a wider audience. It’s also a method to filter some excellence from the sea of self-published offerings so that readers could feel more confidence when committing to them – which then steps toward giving self-published titles in general a better reputation and helps all of them engage new readers.

MARTIN:  So onto your books! You latest novel, Grey Sister, came out this April. For those of us who are new to your books, can you give us a quick pitch of the series?

MARK: Gay murder nuns. You said quick.

MARTIN: Short and to the point. I like it! But now, on to the books you’re a fan of. Are there any indie titles in particular you’d recommend to self-pub fantasy newbs, SPFBO or otherwise?

MARK: I’m a slow reader with limited spare time so I’ve really not read many self-published fantasy books, and almost all of those are SPFBO finalists. My big favourite is Senlin Ascends (now traditionally published). The three winners so far all have much to recommend them. The Grey Bastards (also now traditionally published) is excellent.

MARTIN: What advice would you give any readers here who might be considering a SPFBO submission of their own next year?

MARK: I don’t think any advice other than “do it” is required. Otherwise it’s the same things you would do if you weren’t entering. Write a great book.

MARTIN: And for our last question…you’re well-known for fantasy books classified as “Grimdark.” As many SFF and gaming fans know, the term had its origins in the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. So I’m curious…do you have a favorite Space Marine Chapter?

MARK: I’ve never read a Warhammer book and know nothing about them. Though, oddly, I was invited to write for them recently.

Mark Lawrence’s next book, Holy Sister, arrives March of next year, and is available for pre-order. You can also check out his Amazon Page to get caught up on his prior work, or his blog for updates on SPFBO and other topics. Also, please consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about writing, authors and other topics related to genre writing!


The Tide is Turning in Indie SFF Publishing, #SPFBO


When I first posted my Self-Published Fantasy Guide, I had no idea just how far self-published and indie SFF lit has come. I still remember a time when “self-published” was synonymous with horrible paranormal romance books and…stranger things.

As of 2018 however, we’re seeing some major authors and titles emerging from the self-published and indie scene. Books with stories and covers comparable to (or better than) traditional offerings. This trend has increased to the point where the Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog revealed the cover art for Rob J. Hayes’ Never Die.

Yes, this is real. The genre promotion blog of America’s biggest book chain just featured a self-published book. I remember talking to a fairly well-known author who’ll remain anonymous, and having him mention that “indie is the future.” That was not even a year ago, and as far as I can tell, we’re reaching that future at a shockingly rapid pace.

So yeah. The tide has definitely turned, and indie is getting bigger and bigger. I was told by the author Rob J. Hayes that some folks “took notice” of his SPFBO win, which goes to show what a useful tool that is for curating these titles. Which is something to keep in mind if any of you are planning books of your own.

If you haven’t bought any of his books yet, you can check out Rob J. Hayes’ Amazon page here. I recommend his piratical Best Laid Plans books, as they’re fairly unique in the fantasy space. Which is a trend Never Die seems to continue with its chanbara influences. It’s a book I think looks really kickass, and I’m glad Barnes and Noble seems to think so too!

A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Published Fantasy Novels


“Self-published novels are complete and utter trash!”

Even with high-profile SFF like The Martian and Eragon in the public spotlight, the stigma persists.The idea that self-published novels are slush-pile rejects at best, and groady monster/dinosaur porn at worst. And up until very recently, I had similar misgivings about the self-pub Amazon space. After purchasing a print copy of JP Ashman’s Black Cross however, it completely changed my perception of what self-published books could be.

Soon I found myself checking out more and more titles from the self-published space. Paternus, Where Loyalties Lie, Bloodrush and more. And again, they turned out to be really freakin’ good. Like, “holy cow, I’ve really been missing out” kind of good. And So I started to take the self-published space a lot more seriously. Are there bad books? Sure, but it’s increasingly easy to separate the good from the bad. Much more so than it was in say, 2010.

Still, there’s a definitely a curation problem on the Amazon platform. With traditional publishing at least, you can get a feel for what different imprints (TOR, Orbit, Baen, etc) tend to put out. Amazon’s a bit more like the Wild West, with all sorts of different books crammed into one store. Sometimes it can be hard finding just the right book, which is why I put together this guide for newbies such as me.

But first things first…

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Wordbuilding Series: A Case for Spears


This article came about after consulting a HEMA instructor on facebook about what weapons and armor, were best for a (gunless) fantasy party. The results were surprising, to say the least, and certainly not what’s usually depicted in fantasy games, books and movies.

For starters, heavy plate armor is kind of a no-no. Mobility is key for a questing/adventuring scenario, and thus, cloth armor like a gambeson is best suited for the task. But most surprising of all was the preference for spears and long weapons. The short swords and legendary blades often depicted in fantasy media were apparently unrealistic in most common scenarios (specifically adventuring). A quick Youtube search revealed that instructor I consulted wasn’t the only HEMA expert who shared that opinion, and that really intrigued me. So I thought I’d delve a bit deeper into this subject and do some more research on why this is the case. Are spears really the best weapon for adventuring? And if so, why are they so lacking in fantasy media?



Before I go any further here, I want to point something out. When I say “fantasy story,” I generally mean the adventuring, questing, dungeon-delving type. If your fantasy story is about courtly intrigue or wizards opening a chain hamburger restaurant, then feel free to disregard all this and do your own thing.

But when it comes to questing — specifically hunting things whose bodily fluids may or may not turn you into a zombie/vampire/werewolf/obsidian horror, distance is key. If werewolves were real, you would want a weapon that keeps them as far the heck away from you as humanly possible. This is one major advantage a good spear has that even a legendary Excalibur-esque magical blade commonly depicted in media simply doesn’t.

Spears are also incredibly easy to use, and don’t normally require a lot of training or finesse to be able to use adequately. Sure, there are some polearm martial skills you can learn to better wield such weapons, but the base mode of use for a spear is simple. You point and thrust. Given that many fantasy adventure questing-stories revolve around young and/or inexperienced protagonists with little fighting prowess, this is an ideal starter weapon for them.

But all this is of course, speculation. I mean, it’s not like there’s real-world monsters that we can look at historically to see if this is all accurate, right?


There are in fact, some real-world animals we can look at for inspiration when it comes to monster-hunting or questing in fantasy fiction. A real-world monster that’s so cunning, intelligent and dangerous, they strike fear even in the hearts of seasoned, fully-armed hunters in the real world.



On a whim, I decided to use the same principle applied fictional fantasy monster-hunting and see if there’s any real-world equivalent. And sure enough, when I type in “boar hunting art medieval” on Google Image Search, a good majority of the images overwhelmingly depict spears being used.


And let me be real here. I wasn’t kidding when I said boars were basically monsters. They are. In fact, here’s an excerpt from a hunting site I found that says as much.

Experienced hunters say that wild boar can be even more dangerous to hunt than a bear. Equipped with thick, razor-sharp tusks, and a razor-sharp mind (hogs are the 4th most intelligent animal in the world) a wild boar can weigh a staggering 660 lbs and exhibit extremely aggressive and unpredictable behavior.

Hunters be warned! After wounding a boar, give the animal plenty of time before you follow it in to the bush. Otherwise, you’ll go from being the hunter to the hunted. Boars will circle a human adversary, charge rampantly and attack from behind.

So just to recap, the big pigs are worse than grizzly bears. Add a surprising amount of intelligence to that, and we basically have a good stand-in for a fantasy monster. And the historical evidence (and logic) overwhelmingly suggests that spears (and arbalests) are the best option here.

Logically speaking though, it makes sense, right? Whether it’s chittering skeletons with rusty swords, or some warlock muttering arcane curses at the back of a battlefield, spears are a great primary option for taking them out. They can be thrown, thrusted, used as polearms or even as a magic staff for more martially-minded wizardly types.

Popular culture though, keeps depicting the use of swords in adventuring parties, as well as a host of other inaccuracies, such as leather armor and the dreaded “fantasy weapons/armor.” You know, the ones that look like the protagonists got them from Alibaba, but people somehow still insist look cool?


With all that established then…


Well there’s no real concrete theory as to why this is, and it’s all speculation on my part. But I do have a few ideas…

First off, there’s iconography. People just kind of take for granted that swords are they way to go, because swords are cool, right? He-Man had one, Luke Skywalker had one, the friggin’ Beastmaster had one (and a tiger)…it’s just kind of embedded in our psyche that swords are bad-ass while spears are just kind of that other thing. I mean, maybe Dave has one, but is Dave He-Man? Does he have the power? Probably not.

This is probably because throughout history, great heroes are generally depicted as bearing swords in particular. From St. George and the Dragon, to Perseus, to King Arthur, cool swords were what heroes and kings used, while common hunters and peons in the front lines used boring old spears. One kills dragons, the other kills…boars.

Another reason why spears might not be as popular is because they’re pretty basic. You just kind of point them at the thing you want to kill and push forward. There’s no mystique or allure in terms of martial arts or sword-craft associated with them usually. They’re just kind of plain and boring at first glance. And they aren’t often very cool-looking. They’re usually wooden sticks with a simple, pointy thing at the end. Practical? Absolutely. But plain? Well, yeah. Not exactly Excalibur in the aesthetics department.


So let’s say you’re an aspiring fantasy writer (or aspiring to make a different fantasy novel). You want to do something different and more historically accurate than the typical “guy/gal with sword” story. And so you wanna go the spear route. But you also don’t want to be boring. So how do we make a spear as bad-ass and iconic as Excalibur or Luke’s lightsaber?

In terms of Iconography, you can always reference or model your character’s spear after legendary weapons like Gungir and Green Dragon Sabre. There also is an Odinic connotation of spears with old men and wizardry. So if your main character is say, going to become a wizard, a spear thematically works for him/her because it doubles as a magic staff. Guan Yu, the Chinese figure of legend, was also seen as a great warrior with sage-like, almost Paladin-esque qualities. If you’re going for a wuxia (Chinese fantasy) theme, the Guan Dao (sword-spear) is an iconic and powerful weapon evoking honor, virtue and godliness, especially when paired with the color green. And of course, if you want something a bit more fun, you can have a character in a western fantasy setting pick up a Guan Dao from a foreign merchant, or work it into their culture. They are pretty bad-ass weapons, and stand out more than the standard knife-on-stick look. And there’s a whole suite of martial arts associated with it, so boom! There’s an easy fix for the innate boring-ness of spears.


Archetypally speaking though, the spear as a weapon projects confidence, fatherhood, authority, utility, magic, and war. The Guan Dao projects all this as well  — plus it’s basically the Chinese version of a Paladin’s mace if you wanna go that route. And of course, seeing how the basic standard-issue spear was used frequently in big game hunting, it can work thematically for a hunter character as well.

Alternatively though, if you’re going for a more realistic fantasy story, you could forgo a lot of the legendary stuff and focus a more on the prep time and tactics of monster-hunting and fighting. In reality, fights are pretty short and deadly, and rarely involve karate-flipping Matrix action. But they do require tactics, foresight and planning, and thus a Rainbow Six-esque fantasy setup with realistic arms, armor and quick, bloody skirmishes would be a neat spin on the questing formula. Spears of course, are a must for this. You’ll need them, plus a couple arbalest wielders, and a wizard or healer if your setting allows it.  But even if it doesn’t, a fantasy story about a ragtag group of spear-wielding adventurers braving a world of horrible monsters with tactics and tenacity could be pretty gripping (and potentially grimdark).


Off the top of my head too, the practical nature of the spear itself could be used as a theme. Maybe you can flip a trope on its head and make the all-powerful magic sword essentially useless against enemies with longer range, and make the hero rely on a boring old spear to get the job done. Maybe a stereotypical group of adventurers sets out with nothing but “enchanted weapons” and gets their asses kicked by warriors wearing practical arms and armor? That could be fun. Or silver spears used to dispatch werewolves sin nil-biting conflicts where one simple scratch makes you a goner? Honestly, there’s a lot of cool stuff you can do with spears. And given how lacking they are in many fantasy settings, it’s a simple addition you can use to spice up your story and add some realism.

But hey, that’s just my 2 cents. Know any fantasy books with bad-ass spears? Got thoughts on the subject? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear more thoughts on this!

Worldbuilding Series: Weird Western vs Northam Fantasy


I admit, I am a bit obsessed with categorizations. I love learning about new sub-genres in fiction, and seeing different flavors of fantasy, sci-fi and horror pop up over the years. Sci-fi for example, has gone from planetary romance a la John Carter, to the space opera of Flash Gordon, Isaac Asimov’s hard sci-fi, William Gibson’s cyberpunk, and the new wave of self and trad pub military space opera.

Fantasy too, is going through some very cool changes. What used to be a fairly straightforward genre of elves, dwarves and drow is rapidly ballooning into several unique and interesting sub-genres. And one of my all-time favorite fantasy subgenre, the subgenre that I personally write in…doesn’t have a name. You can look for it on Worlds Without End, but it’s not on there. And thus, in lieu of finding a genre category that these stories fit, I decided to name my own. North American Fantasy, or “Northam” for short.

“But hey!” I hear you say…”Isn’t that just Weird Western?” And to that I say no. There’s a lot of difference between the two, and here’s why, as well as my thoughts on this emerging sub-genre. My two cents on that below:

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Worldbuilding Series: The Six Degrees of Grimdark


There was a conversation a few weeks ago on a Facebook group I frequent called Grimdark Fiction Readers & Writers. On it, there was a very interesting discussion about what constitutes “grimdark” as a sub-genre. This topic tends to pop up here and there, and after thinking about it for some time, I decided to try and give some categorizations a go.

Grimdark, for those of you who aren’t aware, is a term used to denote settings that are gritty and violent, or have a lingering, visceral sense of dread and horror. It’s different from Gothic Horror (stuff like Dracula) in that there’s not usually a sense of beauty and prose to counterbalance the darkness. Movies like Final Destination or Friday the 13th aren’t grimdark either, because they often have very cheesy acting or so-bad-its-good humor that might be “scary” but lacks the looming dread and grimness of a grimdark piece of media.

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Genre Giants: Conan the Barbarian


In the Genre Giants series, we look at book settings and series old and new, from historic franchises to series with massive potential! Today we venture forth into the grim and wild world of Hyperborea, and meet its most famous and savage inhabitant….

King, Conqueror, Pirate, Warrior…Barbarian.

Conan is all these things, and a bad-ass character to boot. His world and setting are a rare sort these days, a bronze-age, sword-and-sandal affair. Though less common in the modern fantasy landscape, the Hyperborean world remains iconic and enduring in our pop culture. Games like Conan Exiles and movies like 2011’s Conan the Barbarian (as well as comics, tabletop games, etc) have kept the flame of this seasoned IP alive, even amongst shinier and newer peers like Warcraft and Sanderson’s Cosmere.

I’m a huge lover of all things genre pulp (especially H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos), and Conan is no exception. It has however, dropped off in popularity recently, as have other sword-and-sorcery fantasy IPs. So I’m here today to try and convince the discerning reader that yes, these shorts are awesome. And here’s why:

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