Posts Tagged ‘Dark Arts’

Art is a Kind of Magic, Magic a Kind of Art

Making good art is hard.

That turned out to be a key concept in my new epic fantasy novel about a secret war between Allied and Nazi sorcerers during World War II, but I didn’t know that until after I had started writing it.

When I began working on The Midnight Front, my goal was to tell a secret-history adventure that transplanted Renaissance-era ceremonial magic into a 20th-century setting. For those who are unfamiliar with the precepts of ceremonial magic from the Christian tradition, its central idea is that all true magic (as opposed to stage magic), from the smallest trick to the grandest miracle, is predicated upon the conjuring and control of demons. The terminology of this style of magic is highly technical and antiseptic, and its practitioners treated the exercise of magic like a form of science (possibly because magic during that period was connected closely with the practices of alchemy, the forerunner of modern chemistry).

To make my novels’ system of magic more cinematic (and therefore better suited to a fast-paced action narrative), I grafted onto it the concept of “yoking,” in which a magician binds one or more demons to his or her mind and body and, for as long as he or she is able to maintain control over the spirits, wields the demons’ powers as if they were his or her own.

In the interest of limiting my characters’ ability to wield such powers I imposed certain consequences upon this practice. My characters soon learn that yoking demons is a miserable experience, one that comes with such side effects as headaches, nosebleeds, intestinal distress, obsessive-compulsive habits, self-harm such as cutting and hair-pulling, nightmares, and other such unpleasantness.

Consequently, my characters swiftly take to self-medication to mitigate the side effects that come with yoking demons. Alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, opium—whatever dulls the pain and quiets the voices, my characters make use of it so that they can yoke more spirits, gain more power, and try to win the war. So far it seemed to be shaping up into a well-balanced and narratively workable system of magic.

Then, one night a few years ago, I was describing the magic system to a friend at a party, and I experienced a revelation: the system of magic I had concocted, and the manner in which my characters coped with its deleterious consequences, mirrored my own creative process.

When I stepped back from my story and examined its moving parts, I realized that magic, which my characters sometimes call simply “the Art,” was a metaphor for all types of creative art. The notion of having to perform exhaustive research and preparation, and to master the fundamentals of the process before being able to use magic professionally was no different from the learning curve experienced by any artist. Writers, painters, musicians, actors, sculptors — any artistic discipline that I could think of fit this paradigm.

Then I thought about what demons represented beyond the context of my story, and I saw that they were metaphors for those forces that drive artists to create, to reshape reality. Some of those forces are benign, but others are not. How many artists have spoken of grappling with their “personal demons” during the act of creation? How many of us find the inspirations for our art in the darker corners of our psyches?

Even my characters’ coping mechanisms are hauntingly familiar to anyone who knows people who make their living in the arts. The creative professions sometimes seem almost synonymous with substance abuse. Opiates and music have a long shared history, as do writing and alcohol. I’ve never made any secret of my own proclivity for drinking; I have long practiced the edict “write drunk, edit sober” (a saying often attributed, possibly in error, to Ernest Hemingway).

The most vital parallel between my perception of artistic expression and the depiction of magic in my Dark Arts series lies in my main character’s moral conundrum: How can he do good in the world when his power is derived from a source considered to be the ultimate incarnation of evil?

The answer, both for my character and myself, is that what matters most is not the source from which one derives power, but what one ultimately does with that power. That’s as true for artists as it is for magicians. Even when our inspirations are drawn from the darkest places, what’s important is that we use our gifts to shed new light — and that we do our best to burn brightly.


The Midnight Front: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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This blog post originally ran on the Unbound Worlds blog in January 2018. That site no longer exists, so I have reposted my essay here.

The Shadow Commission delayed until August 11

For those who have pre-ordered The Shadow Commission, my upcoming third Dark Arts novel from Tor Books, be informed that due to the effects of the ongoing pandemic on the publishing industry and related businesses, the release date of my book (and many others) has been delayed.

Originally scheduled to publish on June 9, 2020, The Shadow Commission is now scheduled to debut on August 11, 2020.

I know it’s a bummer, but there’s really nothing that can be done about it. Many publishers, including Tor’s corporate parent company, Macmillan, are laying off employees and reducing the salaries of those who remain. Printers are running out of paper to print books, because the supply lines for their just-in-time inventory model have been disrupted. There are fewer truckers to cart books from printers to warehouses, and from warehouses to retailers. And the brick-and-mortar retailers are mostly closed, and the biggest online retailer isn’t accepting books right now.

Kind of a perfect storm of suck, really.

At any rate, please be patient. Here’s hoping that when the book arrives at last, you’ll all agree it was worth the wait.

 

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Iron Codex on sale, plus Dark Arts news (#SFWApro)

If you’ve read The Midnight Front, Book 1 of my Dark Arts trilogy from Tor Books, and you want to read more of my black-magic secret-history series, eBooks of Book 2, The Iron Codex, go on sale this Friday, October 25, 2019, for just $2.99.

The Iron Codex is a classic Cold War-era spy thriller, in the style of John Le Carré or Ian Fleming, mixed with Renaissance-era ceremonial black magic. I like to describe it as “Hellfire heats up the Cold War.”

The fine folks at Tor Books are offering U.S. readers an unbeatable price on eBooks of The Iron Codex, this Friday through the end of Halloween.

With Dark Arts, Book 3, The Shadow Commission, recently back from copy editing and slated for publication on June 9, 2020, now is a good time to get caught up on my action-packed series.

If you’d like to know more about the Dark Arts series, check out this new video interview of yours truly, conducted by Carl Birkmeyer of the Baltimore County Public Library. We talked about the origin of the series, its magic system, and its principal themes.

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The Iron Codex is up for a Dragon Award

My secret-history fantasy thriller The Iron Codex has been nominated for a 2019 Dragon Award in the category of Best Alternate History Novel!

I’m grateful to all the fans who signed up and nominated my book for this honor. Of course, my tome is up against some serious heavyweight competition, so the odds of me taking home the award are slim, at best.

Still, I urge you, whoever you are, to sign up to vote now if you haven’t already — it’s free, and all it takes is an email — and please, if you think my book deserves it, give it your vote as Best Alternate History Novel.

In addition, some of my friends have works on this year’s final ballot, in other categories. If you’re willing, I hope you’ll consider casting your votes for their works, as well:

Best Military SF Novel: Uncompromising Honor by David Weber

Best Media Tie-in Novel: Star Trek: Discovery – The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack

Best Horror Novel: 100 Fathoms Below by Steven L. Kent, Nicholas Kaufmann

Best Graphic Novel: Monstress Vol. 3 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda

Thanks to all who have supported my work up to this point, and to all who vote for it to win!

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Interview on The Skiffy and Fanty Show Blog

Over on the blog of The Skiffy & Fanty Show, Paul Weimer has published an interview with me about my Dark Arts series, with a focus on its most recently published volume, The Iron Codex.

We got into some fairly substantial questions about the series in general and the new book in particular. If you have a moment, give it a look.

Here’s an excerpt of one part of the Q&A:

PW: You’ve penned sequels and follow-on novels in the various fictional universes you’ve written in before. What was different about your process in tackling The Iron Codex?

DM: Adding stories to the ongoing literary continuity of Star Trek, as I’ve been doing since 2001, is very different from writing a sequel to my own original novel.

When I write a Star Trek novel, I’m able to take advantage of the fact that many ideas and concepts don’t need to be explained in great detail, because readers of Star Trek novels are already familiar with the series’ setting and characters.

When I started plotting The Iron Codex, I had to deal with challenges that were new to me. One was that I needed to quickly refresh readers’ understanding of the complicated system of ceremonial magic I had developed in the first Dark Arts novel, The Midnight Front. But I also wanted the plot of book two to move quickly, in the style of classic Ian Fleming spy-thrillers.

It’s live now. Go check it out!

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Fantasy casting the Dark Arts series

I have been asked, notably in two interviews by Paul Semel, about what actors I would cast in the key roles of my Dark Arts series if it were being produced today, and if money and talent availability posed no barriers. Because I tend to picture my stories as movies in my imagination before I write them, this is a matter to which I’ve given much thought over the past few years.

These days there are so many great premium long-form series running on so many different channels and services that I can’t really say I have a preference for which one I’d most like to see host a Dark Arts series. All I can say for sure is that I’d rather it be on a premium subscription service than on network television, but at the same time, several cable channels have impressed the hell out of me with their series work (including, but not limited to, AMC, FX, and BBC America).

So, who do I wish would star in this daydream blockbuster of mine?

TOM HOLLAND as Cade Martin
I feel like Tom Holland has the perfect combination of vulnerability and boyish innocence on the verge of becoming cynicism to play the lead role of book one, The Midnight Front.

SUSANNA SKAGGS as Anja Kernova
I was blown away by the subtlety and emotional depth of Susanna Skaggs’s performance in the final season of Halt and Catch Fire — so much so that I find it hard to picture anyone else as Anja Kernova, “the Saint of Stalingrad.”

TOMMY FLANAGAN as Adair Macrae
I’ve been a fan of Tommy Flanagan’s work for years. His recent work on the FX series Sons of Anarchy was especially powerful. He carries with him an aura of danger, gravitas, and loss that makes him the perfect choice to play a 357-year-old Scottish vulgarian master sorcerer.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER as Kein Engel
If you’ve seen Michael Fassbender in the recent Alien films, or as Eric Lensher/Magneto in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, you already know that he has a knack for portraying characters of cold, ruthless power. That makes him the ideal candidate to play the series’ arch-villain.

DIEGO LUNA as Father Luis Roderigo Pérez
A key character in book two, The Iron Codex, Father Pérez starts out as a rival to our heroes. He is decent, pious, and brave. I think that Diego Luna (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) would be the perfect actor to bring this character to life on the screen.

PARKER SAWYERS as Miles Franklin
Assuming this talented and charismatic actor (Pine Gap) can muster a good London accent, he would be a superb choice to play Cade’s best friend at Oxford (and, in the sequels, his partner inside MI6).

SARAH POWER as Briet Segfrunsdóttir
Perhaps best known to SF fans as Pawter Simms on the Syfy series Killjoys, Sarah Power has a regal quality, excellent emotional range, and a knack for playing the smartest person in the room. All of these traits make her a sublime choice for a villainess in search of redemption.

VOLKER BRUCH as Dragan Dalca
The star of German hit TV series Babylon Berlin, Volker Bruch possesses great charm and intensity, as well as excellent physicality. As soon as I saw him, I was able to picture him as the villain of book two, The Iron Codex.

ODED FEHR as Khalîl el-Sahir
With a magnetic screen presence, an aura of mystery, and a rich voice, Oded Fehr has all of the qualities I would expect for an actor looking to play a wise and ancient magician — in essence, this series’ Yoda.

So that’s my wish list for the most major roles. There are some important supporting roles from book one that I have never successfully cast in my imagination (such as Stefan Van Ausdall, Nikostratos Le Beau, or Siegmar Tuomainen), but who I will recognize if I ever see actors who match my mental portraits of those characters.

The Iron Codex Spotify Playlist

One year ago I brought you the Spotify playlist guide for my first Dark Arts novel, The Midnight Front. I’ve chosen to reprise that effort by putting together another Spotify playlist for the second book in the series, The Iron Codex.

Music is invaluable to me as a storyteller. It inspires me with new ideas, and when I’m working, movie soundtracks often help me maintain a consistent frame of mind and emotional state that’s suited to whatever I’m working on.

Once again, to give you a look into my brain’s creative relationship with music, and how it connects to the stories that I write, I have assembled this guide to The Iron Codex’s playlist. Not all chapters or scenes have specific tracks associated with them, but those that do, I’ve done my best to annotate accordingly.

As a quick review of the playlist will reveal, the biggest musical influences this time around were spy-movie soundtracks. Specifically, Kingsman: The Secret Service, by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson; Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace by David Arnold; and Skyfall by Thomas Newman.

Also, a fun bit — at the end are two “bonus tracks.” Neither informed any particular scene, but they were instrumental to me in defining the “headspace” for two characters in particular: Cade, whose heartbroken, soul-shaken state is evoked by John Fullbright’s earnest “Until You Were Gone,” and Briet, whose need to earn some kind of redemption is expressed by Brandi Carlile’s hit “That Wasn’t Me.”

Nota Bene: Not all of the listed tracks are available for playback on Spotify, due to ever-changing licensing permissions, etc. Those of you who collect movie soundtracks might own one or more of these discs already. If you can compile your own local playlist based on this, all the better. (more…)