Author of the (in my opinion) wonderful Ahriman trilogy, as well as a few stories in something you might have heard of called the Horus Heresy, John French is back with the first novel of a brand new series – the Horusian Wars. You might have come across a few of the accompanying short stories already; we’re still pretty early days but it looks like there’s a lot of content coming out for this series. You can find my review of the first novel below, along with a link to a page with details of everything that’s been released so far.
I caught up with John to have a chat about this new series, which you can read in full below – a few of my previous interviews have ended up spread across two posts, but while this makes for a pretty long read I wanted to include everything in a single post.
If you haven’t already, I’d suggest reading my review of Resurrection first, as that should give you a spoiler-free idea of what the book, and the series overall, is about. You can also read a bit more from John on the Warhammer Community site here. The interview then looks at John’s inspiration for the series and the characters, his thoughts on the Inquisition, and a few other bits and pieces including (just because I love that series so much) how it compares with and is influenced by his Ahriman series.
Let’s get straight onto the interview – I hope you enjoy it…
ToW: How did the planning for Resurrection, and the Horusian Wars series overall, differ from the Ahriman series?
JF: Well, I’d learned a lot from doing the Ahriman series, where I’d really enjoyed expanding things sideways and showing different viewpoints. When it came to doing this series, I started the planning differently. I wasn’t just pitching a novel series, I was pitching an audio series and a sequence of accompanying short stories, and then another load of short stories which are character explorations, and they all feed together into the whole mix of the Horusian Wars.
With Ahriman I started very much from the point of view of plot, as I already had the big tentpole beats that I wanted to hit. I wanted to cover Ahriman going to find the Athenaeum of Kallimachus, and to have him returning to Prospero. I wanted the end of the first book to be him accepting his power and deciding that he was going to try to undo the fate of his legion, and then to have the series culminating with him returning to the Planet of the Sorcerers and confronting Magnus.
I knew that that’s where it was going, but other than a few of the characters – like Magnus, Inquisitor Iobel and Astraeos – all the rest of the characters just kind of popped up. Some of them stuck around and caused trouble, and made themselves bigger than they were originally intended to be, characters like Ctesias and Ignis, and a few others, who sort of went ‘we’d really like a chunk of this story, please, because we’re quite fun’!
With the Horusian Wars, though, I started from two points. First of all I built an ensemble of characters based on the idea that the core, certainly of the novels, would be a war between ideologies. Between Thorianism, as represented by Covenant, and Horusianism, as represented by…several other characters. A bit like with Ahriman, I figured out the broad plot of that and I know where it’s going, in that you’ve got this war between two factions who are, essentially, two sides of the same coin. They both believe that mankind can be saved by an incredibly powerful individual.
Thorians believe that the reincarnated Emperor, or at least an incarnation of the Emperor’s power, can become a saviour figure, so they’ve become obsessed with saints, psykers and miracles, and all these kinds of things. Horusianism is the literal reverse of that – they look at the Warmaster and say ‘well yes, he wielded the power of Chaos but the problem was he was ruled by it. If we could construct, or find, a dark messiah who can wield the power of Chaos but who isn’t overwhelmed by it, we could destroy Chaos’. So not small ambitions – nothing could go wrong with that.
What that means is they’re actually chasing a lot of the same things. These people are looking for potential messiahs, saints, dark champions, avatars of gods and so on…they kind of believe the same thing, just totally the other way up.
So taking a conflict like that through its logical steps is what I was thinking with the plot. Unlike Ahriman, though, I built this ensemble of characters, largely – but not completely – involving Covenant’s warband. I built lots and lots of stuff in about them, in terms of where they’re from and what they look like, with much more planning than any of Ahriman’s side characters had, and put arcs on them as well. Each one of them has a destiny and a role that they fulfil within Covenant’s warband.
One of the other things that I decided not to do with this, that I did with Ahriman, was to see inside the main character’s head. I decided that we would see Covenant through the eyes of others, so that readers have to judge his character by his actions rather than being able to read what his motivations were. With Ahriman, so much of what makes him seem sympathetic is that fact that you know what he’s thinking in the books. He’s a total villain! He’s very, very evil. The fact that he’s got good intentions doesn’t alter that.
It’s only the fact that you can see those intentions, you can see him going ‘ah yes, I really need to do this, for which I need to take these horrific actions…I need to reduce this entire population on this planet to starvation so that the planet becomes dust, and I can set up this whole thing in several hundred years…and that’s worthwhile because all I’m trying to do is atone for my sins.’ You start to get a sense that it’s not very nice, but you can see why he would do that…
But if you don’t have that insight then you can only judge a character by their actions and by the reactions of others, and I thought that would be really interesting. Especially a powerful character like an inquisitor, who’s all about ideology and drive. You would have to see what they did, and hear what they believe from their own mouth, and then judge whether they were consistent with that or not. Actually I’ve tried to do that for all the principle inquisitors in the series.
Looking slightly forward, one of the things I’m toying with for later in the series is actually looking, not inside Covenant’s point of view, but inside the viewpoint of one of his opponents. Because of that natural sympathy you get for somebody whose motivations you can see inside, I think it’s quite interesting to do that with one of the antagonists of the story.
ToW: It’s interesting that you mention not seeing inside Covenant’s head, given that in the Ahriman series it begins inside his head before gradually moving away from that. Are there any plans to change this during the Horusian Wars series, or will it remain that way?
JF: That’s the current plan, yes. Many things change in the writing, but the plan is to see what Covenant is from the outside and see how people react to that. I think there’s a lot more you can play with, only seeing a character from the outside.
ToW: Talking about Thorians and Horusians, I thought it was interesting that you haven’t used this novel as a soapbox to go into huge amounts of detail about the differing ideologies of the Inquisition. Were you ever tempted to go heavy on that detail?
JF: Yeah, I was tempted to go heavy on the detail, because it’s the context of the series, but I reined it back in quite a lot.
Someone who read an early draft of the book picked up on the fact that, apart from a very few occasions, nobody calls each other a heretic. The Inquisition is largely made up of people that disagree, and that’s a matter of personal doctrine. They happen to fall sometimes into particular shared trains of thought or commonality of purpose, but because they are some of the rare people in the universe that know something close to the truth, they don’t necessarily see each other as just dogmatically wrong, in that ‘you’re a heretic’ way.
They’ll see others as wrong, as dangerous, and vile, and condemnable, and worthy of being punished and scrubbed from existence. But they wouldn’t necessarily say ‘You’re a heretic’, because they have a wider context that they see the universe in.
Part of the idea behind seeing things from the ensemble of characters was that it let me approach things like all the different doctrines of belief within the Inquisition from the point of view of people who weren’t inquisitors. That way they could say ‘what on earth is this?’ and have some of that context emerge for them, and for the reader as well.
One of things that inspired me, actually, was going back to the original Inquisitor game. I took Gav’s piece of fantastic text from the front of the Inquisitor rulebook [literally page one] – the ‘everything you have been told is a lie’ bit. I wanted that kind of feeling as the characters go through, and as the readers follow the story, that you go ‘oh my goodness, actually this organisation that should be behaving in this way, that should be having this common purpose…surely they all agree, or see it the same way? Surely some of them are wrong and some of them are right…’ But it doesn’t work like that.
I wanted to get across that idea of ‘you’ve been told that the Inquisition is the great protector of mankind, is of one mind and holy purpose…everything you have been told is a lie’. To try and show that, and how it works.
I love all the materials that were produced for the Inquisitor game, all the notes, and concepts, and John Blanche’s sketches, all the weird little evocative names that now, for fans of Warhammer 40,000, have passed into common parlance. Back then when it came out it was like ‘what is that? What’s an arco-flagellant, what on earth is that? What’s a death cultist? What’s a chrono gladiator?’ That was just so exciting, so I’m trying to get as much of that love back into the books as possible. In some cases deliberately, actually. I was looking through the Inquisitor book and the Inquisitor Sketchbook, and going ‘I’m going to have that character, that character’s going to be in the book’, just because it was so inspirational.
Severita, the Sister Repentia – if you flick through the John Blanche Inquisitor Sketchbook – if you’re lucky enough to be one of the two thousand people who might have a copy from 2001 – there’s a picture that’s labelled Repentia. It’s this warrior wearing a smock over a studded bodyglove, with two bolt pistols, a scar over one eye and this kind of henna’d cross over her face, a shaved skull, and a sword on her back. Yep, that is Severita – that’s what she looks like, that’s what she is. I deliberately, especially with her, went ‘you’re going in the book’.
ToW: So…why Covenant, and not another Inquisitor? What drew you to him specifically?
JF: There’s a really simple reason for this, which is that I bought the Inquisitor game – I think in 2001 – and one of the options was to buy the book with two character packs. You got an inquisitor and a henchman, and I got Covenant and Josef, because I thought that Covenant was one of the most beautiful and interesting miniatures I’d ever seen. Ever since then I suppose I’ve held a bit of a candle for Covenant. The other inquisitors that came out at the same time – Tyrus is reasonably well known, and Eisenhorn got an entire multi-book novel series from Dan Abnett!
I thought one of the things that was really interesting about Covenant from the very limited description we had about him was that he was relatively young for an inquisitor, he was a puritan, he was a psyker, and he was incredibly intolerant, specifically of radical inquisitors using Chaos. There are lots of stories, of which Eisenhorn is the most famous, of inquisitors falling to radicalism, but actually I wanted to write a story about a puritan. About a hard-liner, a very different character to Eisenhorn in that sense.
Visually he’s cool, and he’s the kind of inquisitor we haven’t had a story from, or about, before. We haven’t necessarily seen this side of the coin. I flippantly said to someone at Warhammer Fest last year that if Covenant and Eisenhorn ever met, Covenant would kill Eisenhorn. I don’t necessarily mean that in a boss-fight way, but from an ideological point of view. Covenant would see everything Eisenhorn had done as the worst kind of betrayal of the Imperium, while Eisenhorn would probably see Covenant as incredibly narrow minded!
But yeah, I wanted to do a series about a different kind of inquisitor, which feeds back a little bit to not wanting to see inside his head. When I was thinking about his character, I wanted to explore how hardline he is, how unforgiving and driven he is, and how much willpower is required to be those things in Warhammer 40,000. One of the best ways of showing that is to just show what it looks like, and what people like that sound like. In the nicest way, he isn’t your friend! He’s not a friendly guy.
He does care deeply, for example, about his retinue, which probably comes over in some ways in the book, but certainly not in a ‘you’re my friends’ way. It’s something much harder and much more subverted – deliberately – by an act of will, because he knows he might have to sacrifice any of these people. And will do, because he’s an idealist. He believes absolutely in the rightness of his cause. That makes him a very difficult – I wouldn’t necessarily say unpleasant – character. He’s not very sympathetic, he’s not the sort of guy you’d like to sit down and have a beer with.
Not going inside his head, but only seeing the reactions of characters from the outside, just helps get that over.
ToW: That’s really interesting. We’ve had inquisitors like Eisenhorn, Ravenor and Czevak who are all – to a greater or lesser extent – relatable. A puritan, hardline inquisitor is something that we haven’t seen much of up to this point…
JF: No…well, we still need characters who people can relate to, and that’s what Josef, Cleander and Viola are there for. In some ways Josef is how some people might like an inquisitor to be, quite relatable and fatherly, while Cleander is too cool for school and quite amusing here and there, but still with all his doubts and so on. Covenant isn’t any of those things. I don’t think he’s relatable at all…and if he is then I’ve made a mistake! Hopefully, he should feel pretty menacing as a character…
In fact, one of my touchstones for how Covenant comes across came from the Godfather films. There’s a particular shift in the way that the main character, Michael Corleone – played by Al Pacino, obviously – comes across between the first and second films. There are two amazing sequences, one where he’s confronted by a senator who insults him deeply, and then another where he’s talking with his staff, if you like, about killing somebody. It’s just how matter of fact he is, and how little he talks. When he threatens, he never shouts.
ToW: I liked the way that other characters reacted to inquisitors – was there a deliberate attempt to re-mystify them, even while shedding some light on them, after we as readers have become accustomed to them?
JF: Yes, absolutely. I suppose I was trying to do something similar to some of the great work that people like Dan [Abnett] have done, where characters who have never seen a Space Marine react when they see one. I wasn’t necessarily trying to re-mystify them, I was trying to get across what I’ve always understood the background to be – which is that these are incredibly powerful people.
No-one sees them, there really aren’t that many of them, they’re scattered very thinly across the galaxy, and so people might have heard of them…but imagine what those people would think about somebody who has the power to condemn their entire planet, and everybody on it, to death. Or to perform psychic interrogation upon them, or scoop them up and say ‘You’re now going to go and fight this war’. These figures confront all of the hideous dangers that the general population of the Imperium don’t actually know about; all they know is that these are the people who can judge anyone. What kind of reaction would that get from somebody?
That was very much the feeling that I wanted to get over. It harks back to what I feel is the original portrayal of what inquisitors were, from the Inquisitor game and before that from things like Codex Imperialis in 2nd Edition 40k, where it’s said that these very rare, very individual people are viewed as figures of terror throughout the Imperium…and people don’t see them. It’s incredibly rare to meet an inquisitor, and terrifying because of what they represent – they are the God-Emperor, they have that power. They don’t need to check in or ask permission.
In a universe like Warhammer 40,000 that’s terrifying. I tried to put in almost the flip side to that response into the mind, very briefly, of a very short-lived Secutarii Prime at the beginning of the novel, who just doesn’t like the fact that they exist. From his very Mechanicus-esque, hierarchical viewpoint everything has to have a dependency upon something else, and should be part of a structure and a mechanism. Inquisitors aren’t part of any mechanism, unless they choose to be.
I think you’re right – we as readers of the background know more about the universe than almost any character in that universe, and so it’s very easy to think that the universe itself has our same point of view and our level of knowledge. That can sometimes rob things of their impact, whereas it’s interesting if you actually ask what that would be like. What would it be like if you met somebody for the first time that can do whatever they like? For thousands of years there’s been this mythology of what they are and what they can do, and a set of superstitions will have built up – what would that be like? It would be totally terrifying. I was definitely trying to get that across.
ToW: Covenant is a psyker, but on a very different level to Ahriman. Did you have to make any decisions about how you were going to handle that differently, either technically or to differentiate the series?
JF: There is a lot of psychic stuff, and there will be in the series going on, but in-universe it’s a totally different order. Ahriman is incredibly, transcendentally powerful. He’s not quite at the level of rare, rare emergent psykers in the brief moments before they collapse – who can turn planets inside out – but he’s just incredibly powerful. All of the psykers in Resurrection and the series overall are of a different order, with one exception…which is a spoiler which I won’t give away!
One of the ways I dealt with that was by basically saying ‘they are of a lower order’ and taking chunks of different powers and abilities – which I still wanted to use, as I still enjoy things like mind invasion and mindscape stuff – but parcelling that out. Covenant has a bit of light telepathy, if you like, some telekinesis and some other functional and reasonably controlled powers, but there’s nothing spectacular there. He’s not going to do an Ahriman and destroy an entire room full of Chaos Space Marines in the space of time it takes for his heart to beat once.
Likewise Mylasa, who’s kind of his pet telepath and whose job is to scoop out people’s minds and perform psychic interrogations – that’s all she does. She doesn’t have any of the other bells and whistles, she’s not going to be throwing lightning around, as she’s actually physically very weak.
By just separating it out across different characters it makes the point that this is a different order of psychic power, but it also changes the texture of the book. In the Ahriman series, especially towards the end – at least I thought as I was writing it – all the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not, what’s psychic powers and what’s reality, really start to blur. That gives a very different texture to the book because those people walking in dreamscapes and fighting in telepathic, etheric combat, are real and part of that universe. It’s not so much in Covenant and his entourage’s universe, and you only really access some of those kind of situations via very particular characters, like Mylasa.
ToW: Thinking of Covenant’s entourage, the accompanying short stories are doing a very different job to what the Ctesias and Magnus stories did in the Ahriman series. Can you talk a bit more about how you’re approaching these, and what you’re hoping they’re going to add?
JF: I’m kind of doing two sets of shorts. One of which are, I suppose, interstitial stuff – like The Absolution of Swords, which is a prequel to Resurrection. I’ll do some more of those as the series goes on, that kind of link and show other bits that are going on and directly relate to the novels.
With the other shorts (including The Purity of Ignorance and The Maiden of the Dream), Nick Kyme – my editor – and I loosely call them The Arcana shorts, because they’re very deliberately character explorations. They’re all themed and titled in a particular way, as well – we might be being a bit too clever, I don’t know, but they’re all about tarot cards. Not in a strict way, but they’re each supposed to be a story that exemplifies not only a particular character but a particular divinatory meaning.
The Purity of Ignorance is Ianthe’s introduction, The Maiden of the Dream is Mylasa’s introduction, there’s one in the back of the special edition called The Blessing of Saints which is about Idris and Covenant before they were inquisitors…and there will be more.
So yeah, they all either sound like a tarot card or they sound like the reading or the meaning of a card as it goes down. They’re all supposed to say something about the Imperium and something about the Inquisition and the whole situation. In a more blunt way they’re all deep character explorations and are meant to show you…well they’re not meant to do the job of the novel in terms of giving you character, because hopefully by reading it you get more than you need to enjoy those characters, but sometimes they offer different insights or very particular insights into characters that, taken alongside the series, will give a sense of real depth. That these are all living, breathing people with very particular stories.
Also, when you slot them all together there will probably be a little bit of a thread of…not revelation, but dot joining that you can do and go ‘oh, I see. That wasn’t necessary to the plot but it enriches it’. If you read Resurrection you’ll know who Mylasa is and you’ll see what she’s doing, and that’s satisfying hopefully in itself, but if you go and read The Maiden of the Dream you’ll go ‘ohhh!’ and you’ll understand a little more about her, which then hopefully should add to what you get from the main book.
ToW: We didn’t actually see much of Mylasa or Ianthe in Resurrection. Can you talk about why you’ve focused on these so far in the shorts, and not Josef or Severita?
JF: Yeah, that was deliberate. I did Mylasa just because I had an idea for a story, in all honesty. She’s important throughout the arc, she’s got a lot to do because – slight spoiler – at the end of Resurrection a particular antagonist – or protagonist depending on your point of view – is given to her to interrogate, by Covenant. And that’s going to be part of book two…
So part of it is sort of setting that up, and because I’ve put a lot of thought into what she’s like. The thing with Ianthe, then, is really that I wanted to context her into Covenant’s world, if you like, through The Purity of Ignorance. The whole thing with Agent of the Throne [the upcoming audio drama] is to show somebody who’s out doing all the other stuff. So she isn’t part of the main arc, she has her own arc, and Agent of the Throne is, all being well, a series in itself. I’m just finishing the script for the second episode of that. We’re kind of viewing it a little bit like a streaming series, so it is being set up in that kind of way.
Ianthe is her own character, she’s got her own arc and her own problems to deal with. One of the things when I was conceiving the whole thing was that the novels are about what’s going on immediately with Covenant, and about inquisitors themselves, but then there’s a broader thing that’s about how the Inquisition works and how they get things done. I thought it would be interesting to also have somebody fighting the one rung down of Inquisitorial wars, and actually do something with that. So Ianthe doesn’t get any screen time in Resurrection, although she might crop up later – briefly – but her place is really in Agent of the Throne.Speaking of which, it’s a slightly different tone to Resurrection, obviously being an audio drama, but it’s a particular tone. But Ianthe has her own arc and her own problems, and this lets me show a different angle of Warhammer 40,000 and the Inquisition at the level of ‘right, go out there and solve these problems for me’. The metaphorical conversation would go something like ‘Do not report back in, the reason I’m getting you to do this is so that I do not have to get involved. You’re dealing with things which are too difficult and dangerous to be left to the ignorant of the Imperium, but it’s not what I’m doing’. He probably has a few of those people out there, but the idea is that these are high level, self determined operatives who are almost making up their own missions as they go along, and who have a very broad remit. That remit being to deal with problems, and to not cause more problems than they solve. That kind of thing.
ToW: Can you talk a little about when the series is set?
JF: It’s definitely in the ‘Time of Ending’ if you like, with warp storms wracking the Imperium, Chaos in ascendancy, and things becoming more and more fractured and under pressure. But this is such a big galaxy, and I wanted to look at that, at something that is focused away from all the big focal events and locations. So, yes, it has context within the whole but it is not intended to link directly to say Guilliman’s return or the new foundings of Space Marines. It has its own story to explore.
The other thing that I wanted to explore specifically is the idea that the apocalypse might happen next door, which is a slightly flippant way of putting it. I was very struck a few years ago by a documentary when someone was talking about threats to civilisation, terrorist threats and so on, and they said ‘yes, it might be that a huge and horrific crisis emerges because of the power brokering between great nations…or it might just be some guy next door with a chemistry set in his basement’. People always say ‘Surely not! Surely that couldn’t happen, surely it has to happen on a grand stage, right?’ But is that true?
Especially in somewhere like the Warhammer 40,000 universe I thought it was really interesting. One of the questions that I’m waiting for, hopefully when people read the books, is ‘It’s not actually going to happen, is it? They’re not actually going to find an avatar of Chaos or a potential avatar of the Emperor, are they? Because that can’t happen here – surely it would happen on Terra or in the sight of Guilliman…?’ And my only response to that will be…’Would it? Does it have to?’ I mean, what would a momentous event like that look like as it was happening, if you didn’t know the end? So yeah, I thought that was quite an interesting thing to do.
And we’ve talked about some things that might be interesting, that echo with some stuff that’s going on in the wider setting, but this is still very much it’s own thing, encapsulated within its own themes.
ToW: There are quite a lot of references to things coming in threes in Resurrection, which hark back to the recent Games Workshop models for the Gathering Storm. Was that intentional, or pure coincidence?
JF: Pure coincidence. Lots of creatives and lots of things either deliberately or subconsciously work in threes. Going back to what we were talking about earlier with the Ahriman series, I realised that one of the great joys I had was pulling threads. I got more and more confident with setting something up early on, just as a little aside, and then cashing it out later on.
I tried to do that in Resurrection at a few different levels, some of them probably so subtle that no-one notices, but it’s sort of layered in there in a few places. Lots of mythology has threes in it – the three great gods of Greek mythology, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus; the norns that sat at the bottom of the tree in Norse mythology spinning the fates; the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. When you look at it, there are threes everywhere in mythology! I just tried to put some of that in, very specifically in one respect [no spoilers] but if you look closely there are lots of echoes of it. Hopefully as you go through the series you’ll realise that the echoes of what’s going on have been there for ages.
ToW: You mentioned that you learned a lot writing the Ahriman series. How do you feel that your writing has changed since then? Has anything been notably different this time around?
JF: It’s changed in small ways, for sure – like how I structure some of the prose, and things like that. It changes over time, you learn new things and start playing around with other techniques, which does make things a bit different. In terms of the process of writing, though, it’s kind of a developed version of what I’ve always done, in that I tend to plan lots. What I do now, though, unlike when I wrote Ahriman, is that I leave gaps – I put a lot of work into characters and a lot of work into the big beats of the story, and then I leave gaps. I don’t know exactly how things are going to pan out.
What I found before, when I was exhaustively planning everything, was that things pulled apart really quickly and I didn’t have flexibility. Also, one thing I have developed since then is a lot more sense of going…’ok, I’m this far through a book and I’m not entirely happy with what’s happening, so actually I’m going to change a bit of direction and then come back and re-engineer big bits of the rest of the book that I’ve already written’. I did that with Resurrection actually, moved bits around and combined them into other parts to make those bits of the story.
It’s not really a spoiler, as people will have to read the book to know what I mean, but the sequence on Iago with the catacombs – that was originally there, but some of the beats in that sequence actually happened later on in a different location, originally. I ended up combining the two because it just worked better that way.
ToW: In terms of writing techniques, there’s a strong sense in this – and some of your other work – that as the action picks up, the sentences become shorter and snappier. Is that a deliberate choice, and a recognised technique?
JF: Yeah, I think it is actually. I think it both happens naturally, and people try to do it deliberately sometimes. Sentences become shorter, more concrete, more simple if you like, and that hopefully lends to the pace and punch in those sequences. I was talking about this the other day with another writer, and we were talking about the reverse of that – how you build tension, in a sort of ‘oh my goodness, what’s going to happen now?’ sense.
It’s actually very similar, but it creates the reverse effect, as you go into more detail. You start writing lots of short sentences of individual, discrete details combined with individual, discrete actions. What that does is it produces a slow-motion, almost Hitchcockian focus within the scene. For example, if you’re saying that someone reaches for a door handle, if you just say ‘They reach for a door, they open it, and there’s a gribbly monster behind’, it’s not very exciting. Instead you could say:
They reached for the door handle. The door handle was brass. Their fingers touched the door handle. The metal was cold.
“Are you going to open that?”
The fingers closed on the door handle…
What we’re doing is just expanding those moments, by using these very simple, concrete statements. Hopefully, even by describing it with that fairly lame example, you can sort of feel it expanding slowly. You’re thinking ‘what’s happening? Why am I getting all this extra sensory detail?’ And it’s similar with action – you want to keep things moving along, you want people to be aware of just what the actions and reactions are, that are happening. Then at other moments you breathe out, and let the story and the description breathe more.
ToW: Structurally, Resurrection feels unusual in that it’s essentially three key moments. Plenty of books are split up into sections, or acts, but this feels more overtly so. Is that a common structure, or something a bit more unusual?
JF: No, it’s kind of unusual. I put a lot of weight into the opening section, not only because I wanted it to feel like a momentous event, but because in some ways it’s really important. There are several card tricks that go on in that sequence, and it’s really important that you see them, that you see the magician apparently put the cards back in his pocket [not literally – there isn’t actually a magician doing card tricks…]. And then suddenly they’re in his hands again.
Otherwise, a lot of the stuff later on doesn’t have as much resonance. If that entire sequence doesn’t come off right, you won’t be wondering about who certain characters are, or you won’t be asking ‘what happened there?’
ToW: Do you think the success of the Ahriman series, commercially or artistically, has enabled you to write this series? Could you have written this series without having written Ahriman?
JF: Ooh, that’s a good question. I think it would have been a different series! I think I could have written an Inquisition series back in 2011 when I started Ahriman, but it would have been a different one. I think that what Ahriman let me do was tell a different story, in a different light. For example I think I wouldn’t have been as bold to not have the main character as a point of view, and so on.
And yes, Ahriman has been well received and that just opens up conversations so that when you turn around to your editor and say ‘I’d like to do THIS!’ and they go ‘Ok, tell me more…’ they’re more likely to then go ‘Ok, we trust you. We trust that you’re going to do something great’. So I suppose that allows me a little more wiggle room to do something like this.
In the writing, as I say I think it would have been a different book, and a different series without Ahriman. Difficult to know what it would have been, but it would have been different.
ToW: It feels like there’s been a line drawn in the sand now with Ahriman, at least for the time being, with the omnibus and the beautiful limited edition hardback set. Have you had the chance to look back at that now and feel comfortable about the whole thing?
JF: It feels like something that’s complete within itself. I got to write several introductions, for the special edition and the omnibus, and it was great to look back and reflect upon how it all came about and how it all then turned out. It does feel, not necessarily in terms of his story but in terms of that story, that it’s sort of satisfying and complete. There were things that I would have liked to have done within it, but I might still get chance to do those in the future, who knows?
I had a very particular idea of how it would turn out, and it turned out both in the way that I envisaged it and absolutely not. But I’m completely satisfied with it.
ToW: And how does Resurrection feel, in that sense – does it feel like the book you planned, and that you intended it to be?
JF: In terms of tone and style, yes. In terms of the big beats of the plot, yes. But yeah, books find their own voice when you’re doing them. The few people who have read it so far tell me that it’s undoubtedly written by me, but I think it does have a slightly different voice, a different texture and feel to Ahriman. I didn’t know what that was going to be, really, before I started writing it. So yeah, it sounds crazy and I know it’s one of those clichés, but you come up with an idea or a series of ideas, and a plan, and you envisage it…but then when you actually come to do it what you’re actually doing is finding what the book actually is.
That’s one of the interesting things about a series as well. I’m pretty much starting now on the second book, and I’m looking at the first book and reminding myself of what the texture of the book is, and what kind of structure and tone the story has. That’s part of the fun; as you go through a series you start to explore that identity and it becomes very, very familiar. I remember as I was doing the last Ahriman book, everything was so familiar, all the characters were so familiar. The way an Ahriman story should feel just seemed obvious, in some ways. That’s quite an interesting process to go through.
ToW: In terms of Ahriman, it feels like that series might not have happened without Graham McNeill’s A Thousand Sons. Now The Crimson King has just been released, and I really loved the way that characters like Ignis and Tolbek, who you had created, were brought in as their earlier incarnations. How did you feel about handing things back to Graham, having taken the reins off him in the first place?
JF: I feel it’s lovely, actually. Characters like Ignis, Credence, Tolbek and Sanakht were mine, I created them for the series, but throughout the early days of Graham working on The Crimson King and me on Ahriman: Unchanged we were talking an awful lot. We tried to pass bits of character back and forwards, so Graham would say ‘I think I’ll put these characters in, if that’s alright’ and I would say ‘yes, absolutely!’ It makes sense for them to feel like they’re all part of the same universe.
I thought it was really nice of Graham to do that, and it made me very proud to see some of my boys in there! Especially Ignis. He and Credence seem to have their own little gravitational fan field as well, which always surprises me, but shouldn’t really because out of all the characters who did a strange thing and walked in out of nowhere, those two were probably the two that I liked most.
ToW: Even more than Ctesias?
JF: Well…it’s borderline. I like Ctesias an awful lot. I think he works, though, because of his contrast with the other views, this kind of cynical, weary, jaded view he has of Ahriman and the universe. I think a lot of that works because you have other viewpoints on Ahriman and the Thousand Sons, and his view works contra to some of that massive self-delusion that lots of Thousand Sons have. That they were hard done by, they were betrayed by the Imperium and misunderstood…Ctesias doesn’t have that. His view is ‘no, we’re evil! We deserved it. Doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop doing what I’m doing…’ I suppose the morality to him doesn’t matter at all…
I suppose my standout two are Ctesias and Ignis in particular. I’d love to come back to them at some time, as well. [I hope that happens!]
ToW: Can you talk at all about the timeframe for writing the rest of the series, or anything else you’re working on at the moment?
JF: Well the plan is that it is a series, and all being well we’d like the books to come out on a regular basis a bit like Ahriman. I’m starting the second one at the moment, and then there are things like Agents of the Throne which comes out in August, I’m just finishing the second one of those off at the moment. Beyond that both those things should drop fairly regularly over the next couple of years…
I can’t say anything about the Heresy at the moment…everything has a big black Thou Shall Not Enter label across it. Stuff’s going on there, I just can’t say what it is, but the canny observers of how many books I normally write may observe that I finished Resurrection a while ago and am just starting the second book, and there was a bit of a gap in between…
ToW: So it’s safe to say that the main thrust of your work with Black Library at the moment is the Horusian Wars and the Heresy?
JF: Yes, at the moment. It would be nice to do a Primarchs novel at some point – there have been some chats about that – but yeah, I suppose that’s the thrust of it. For a few years I’ll do this, like I did with Ahriman. I lived with Ahriman for four years, and if I wasn’t doing other bits and pieces or Horus Heresy stuff then I was doing Ahriman, and it’s similar at the moment.
ToW: Let’s end with one last question – which faction of the Inquisition do you relate to the most?
JF: Actually, a few of us sometimes joke about this. It’s a very good question…I think in reality I’m probably an Amalathian, in that I don’t like things to be disrupted too much. If you were to highlight my more radical inclinations I think I’m probably an Isstvanian, with that idea that conflict breeds strength. Although, I might be a Recongregator…those who believe that the dead and ossifying remains of the Imperium should be turned over, because they believe in progress and those sort of horrid things.
But yeah, in my radical frame I’m probably a Recongregator and in my puritan frame I’m probably an Amalathian. Yes, no Horusianism, Xanthitism or Monodomination for me…
You should ask all authors that!
As always, huge thanks must go to John for taking the time to do this interview. I hope you found it as interesting to read as I did to discuss and write up! If you haven’t already, I’d strongly recommend you check out the Horusian Wars stories so far – there’s a reading order (of sorts) in this article here which you might find useful. Do keep an eye out as well for more Tales of the Horusian Wars still to come…
For more of John’s thoughts on this series, you should definitely check out his interview on the Combat Phase podcast, which you can find here.
If you’ve got any comments, feedback or questions off the back of this interview, please do feel free to let me know – you can get in touch via the comments on here, by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via either Facebook or Twitter.