I see that I’ve now interrupted my series of retrospectives looking back on my novels for a good five months, so it’s high time that I returned to the topic. Before I do, let me share a couple of personal updates:
First, I’m now working on the rewrite for Scornful Stars, which will be Book 3 of my Breaker of Empires series. Sikander North is now in command of his own starship, and he’s up against a secessionist Caliphate governor, a sector teeming with space pirates, and a bitter enemy from his past. I also just received my paperback copies of Valiant Dust (book 1), which should be hitting the bookstores this week. If you missed Valiant Dust in hardbound, here’s your chance to pick it up in paperback. And finally Restless Lightning, book 2 of the series, comes out this October.
Second, I’m happy to report that the ALTERNITY Science Fiction Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook is entering distribution. I’m pretty proud of how the book turned out, and we’re diving in on the follow-on sourcebooks. I expect we’ll see the Protostar Mission Guide and The Shipyard before the holidays. I’m not doing a lot of direct work on these (well, I’ll be writing at least one adventure in Protostar), but I’ll lend a hand where I can.
Okay, on to Swordmage, the first volume in my Blades of the Moonsea trilogy!
Shortly after I finished up The Last Mythal, we started serious work on 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons in my “day job” as a D&D designer. Naturally, that also involved making decisions about how and why the Forgotten Realms campaign setting should evolve to keep up with the newest edition of the game. I could write a number of essays about the process of reinventing Realms for 4e and why we made the decisions we did (and maybe I will sometime). For now I’ll just say that we settled on a Star Trek: Next Generation approach: We decided to create a new “starting point” for the setting by advancing the timeline to a new generation, and we decided that we needed a pretty serious in-world explanation to describe how things in the world (like how magic works, or where new races came from) changed from one edition to the next. The Spellplague was the story mechanism that we came up with. As a result, the 4e-era novels were set 100 years after the end of the 3e era, and they needed to incorporate some pretty substantial changes to the world.
Due to the success and positive reception that The Last Mythal received, I was one of the first authors invited to create new stories for the new Forgotten Realms. Naturally, I was very excited about the opportunity. I decided that after the sprawling RSE (Realms-Shaking Event) of The Last Mythal with its armies of thousands and world-threatening stakes, I was really ready to narrow my focus and tell a “small” story about a lovingly crafted microcosm of Faerûn and not-quite-so-superheroic protagonists dealing with local problems.
As it so happened, I had the perfect spot already picked out: In the waning months of the 3e era I’d started making notes about a potential setting for a FR game I was thinking about running—the Moonsea town of Hulburg, and a set of family relationships for the Hulmasters, the ruling family. Hulburg was not overly developed in Realmslore, isolated, and surrounded by a lot of spectacular wilderness. I saw it as a “Western”-like setting with plenty of room for me to expand my canvas as I needed. In a lot of ways a D&D campaign is like a classic Western movie: the good-hearted stranger with the power to stand up to the local bad guy rides into town and stands up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. So, I knew that Hulburg was the place I wanted to set my story, and I knew that I had an itch to cast my story as a classic Western set in the Forgotten Realms.
The next question: Who would be my protagonist? At the same time I was working on the new version of the Forgotten Realms in my day job, I was also heavily involved in the development and expansion of the new 4th Edition D&D game. I was very much aware of a number of really interesting new character archetypes and new takes on the old D&D races and classes, and I quickly settled on the idea of highlighting at least some of these in my new novel. One of those new 4e-isms was the swordmage character class: a tough front-line fighting hero who used magic wards instead of plate armor and augmented his skilled swordplay with spells to enchant his weapon. I wanted to explore that idea from the fiction side of things, and have some fun with the “cinematics” of a protagonist using those sorts of abilities—and dealing with the misjudgments and limitations they might entail. That’s how Geran Hulmaster, the swordmage returning home after years of adventure abroad, came to be the hero of the book.
(As things turned out, the swordmage character class got pushed out of the 4e Player’s Handbook due to lack of space. While I based a lot of Geran’s spells and abilities on the initial design draft of the swordmage Rob Heinsoo and his design team had sketched out early in the 4e process, the class itself didn’t come out until *after* I wrote Swordmage. And at that point, a lot of the swordmage flavor and abilities used my novel character as inspiration.)
Unfortunately, we went in the wrong direction with the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms, although we didn’t realize it at the time. Many of the decisions we arrived at turned out to be bad ones, and we damaged the brand in the effort to modernize it. For a very vocal segment of the fan base, Swordmage as a novel was much less important than Swordmage as the incarnation of the new Realms. Some fans who felt that 4e FR wasn’t “their” Realms anymore (not without some justification, to be fair) absolutely *hated* the Faerûn that Swordmage presented. For them, whether Swordmage was a good story or not wasn’t important—what was important was that it wasn’t the Realms they knew and loved. Plenty of readers took to the new Realms reasonably well, or enjoyed Swordmage without worrying too much about what it meant for the Realms as a whole. I’m certainly grateful to the readers who didn’t like the new Realms but gave my story a fair shot anyway. That must have been tough.
Anyway, Swordmage is my Western. It’s a smaller and more intimate story than anything I’d done since City of Ravens, and it’s more character-driven than plot-driven. Geran’s relationships are important, and the stakes in the story are personal. I think it’s a good bit of work, regardless of whether you liked what was going on with 4e Realms as a whole.