Getting 'The Band' Together: Questions For Nicholas Eames
Ever since Led Zeppelin took it up on themselves to sing songs about hobbits, rock music and fantasy literature have had an intimate relationship. But rarely has anyone explored that overlap as effusively as Nicholas Eames. The author's debut novel, Kings of the Wyld, became an out-of-the-blue hit in 2016 thanks to its witty, rollicking mashup of sword-and-sorcery bombast with copious references to the real-world canon of classic rock: Everything from a town called Coverdale (as in David Coverdale, singer of Whitesnake) to a character named Moog (after the legendary inventor Bob Moog and his eponymous synthesizer). Also, the many bands of monster-slaying, treasure-snatching adventurers in Eames' novel operate — and inspire widespread worship — the same way rock bands do in our world.
Bloody Rose is this year's sequel to Kings of the Wyld, and it's even better than its predecessor. The new book takes place six years after the events of the first, with the focus being on some of the compelling female characters of Eames' world — including the titular Rose, warrior and daughter of the legendary Golden Gabe from the cast of Kings. With her own adventuring band Fable at the center of the maelstrom, Rose and crew confront the aftermath of the momentous battle that concluded the previous installment of the series, including a villain whose charismatic depth matches Rose's own. Humorous twists and pulse-ratcheting action abound in Bloody Rose, but its Eames' knack for heart-wrenching poignancy that makes his warm, wonderful fantasy so harmonious.
Rock 'n' roll and fantasy have gone hand in hand since the '70s, but it's usually a one-way street — that is, rock artists using fantasy themes and imagery in their songs and on their album covers. In an email chat, I asked Eames what possessed him to go the opposite route and work rock into a fantasy novel.
"I'd just finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline," he says, "and there's a scene in it where the character needs to play part of a Rush song to pass a challenge. That got me listening to Rush, and then a few other '70s bands like Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Pink Floyd. Somewhere between listening to them and reading a book that was essentially an homage to all things nerdy, I decided to abandon the super-serious fantasy novel I'd been laboring on for more than a decade and write something frivolous, fun, and unabashedly fantasy instead.
I was certain someone must have done it already, but when I realized that no one had, I wrote the thing as fast as I could before someone beat me to it.
You're doing more than just sprinkling references to rock stars and songs throughout your books. You're taking a basic fantasy trope — the band of sword-wielding adventurers — and conflating it with a basic rock trope — the band of guitar-wielding musicians. Why do these two things overlap so neatly?
It's wild how well they do! A few readers mistake the 'getting the band back together' thing for nothing more than a schtick, when in fact it's how the entire world operates. If there were monsters roaming the land, wouldn't there be bands of mercenaries hiring themselves out to kill them? And why wouldn't those bands have managers to book them gigs, secure their lodgings, and collect their payment? And then, of course, those bands would become celebrities, renowned for their feats of bravery. But being human, they'd inevitably squander that fame and fortune on booze, drugs, and sex. Eventually, they would wonder: "Why risk our lives hunting monsters when we could bring the monsters to us and fight them in arenas in front of a thousand adoring fans?"
See? It's a natural progression, which is another reason it baffles me that no one beat me to it!
Bloody Rose, the second book in your series, shifts focus from the first book, Kings of the Wyld. In short, Kings was almost all male, while Rose takes the female point of view.
I knew Rose would be the primary focus of the story, and to begin with the POV character was a young man named Tom. The story of an infatuated boy, however, is fairly typical, so changing Tom to Tam turned that dynamic into something I think is much cooler: A young woman who looks to Rose as a role model and finds a flesh-and-blood, deeply flawed human instead. Unfortunately, this change necessitated rewriting the entire story from scratch (and then again when I altered Tam's origin story) but it was well worth it in the end.
There also seems to be a shift in musical references between the two books. Kings is all about the nods to '70s rock, while Rose contains more Easter eggs about the '80s. Is this all part of your master plan?
If there were monsters roaming the land, wouldn't there be bands of mercenaries hiring themselves out to kill them? And why wouldn't those bands have managers to book them gigs, secure their lodgings, and collect their payment?
Indeed, it is! Although each book is a standalone story featuring a different band of mercenaries, there's a narrative thread running through each that will (theoretically!) tie them all together in the end. In keeping with its predecessors, the third book in the series will leap forward another decade and draw inspiration from the hip-hop and grunge (particularly the anti-establishment variety) of the early '90s.
At points your books can be as grim as those of Joe Abercrombie or George R. R. Martin. But there's also a huge streak of humor and heart that runs through them. How do you think your books fit into the landscape of contemporary fantasy?
I think the works of Abercrombie and Martin (which many refer to as 'grimdark') are a response to fantasy of an earlier age, when heroes were infallible and villains inherently evil. They feature morally grey characters making hard choices, and since the publishing industry (like the movie industry) loves to follow up one successful thing with a dozen more like it, a whole decade of darker books swept in and became the new normal.
I suspect the pendulum is swinging, however, for two reasons. The first is that books like mine (and other feel-good stories by authors like Becky Chambers and Katherine Addison) have met with surprising success. The second is because the world has become an increasingly depressing place over the last few years. We're bombarded with bad news by the hour. We need heroes now more than ever, and until Oprah and Elon Musk find a way to clone themselves we'll have to settle for fictional ones.
I'm hoping to see a lot more humorous fantasy in the years to come. Here's hoping I'm afforded the opportunity to keep contributing as well!
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller
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