British Fiction Focus

Kenstibec is Back

Good news, Ficial fans! Kenstibec, the anti-hero at the artificial heart of Jon Wallace’s pacey dystopian debut, will return in a sequel this summer. Furthermore, a final volume will follow, completing the circle Barricade began.

With Steeple revealed, I reached out to the aforementioned author to talk about the new novel. Among a number of other subjects, we discussed the hard work of building a world, the balancing act involved in making the middle of a trilogy accessible at the same time as satisfying returning readers, and the mixed bag of comparisons many reviewers (including yours truly) made between Barricade and… let’s call it a lost and found of other fiction.

I also asked Wallace to sell me on Steeple in a single paragraph, under the pretence that I was still sitting on the speculative fence.

Kenstibec was a Ficial: an invulnerable, emotionless life form. He was designed to build a better world for humanity, but that didn’t work out.  The war between people and the Ficials laid waste to his country and, worse, left him mortal as any man. Now, living secretly among his sworn enemy, he sets out on a mission to reclaim his Ficial strength. All he has to do is climb the battered remnant of a huge, impossible skyscraper that looms over the ruins of London. It’s going to be another long journey—chased by cannibals and attack drones, through crawlspaces and lift shafts, up the crumbling edifice of man’s last great monument to greed.

Do I see a steeple? I dare say I do.

Without any further faffing, I give you… the interview:

Q: Was Barricade always the beginning of something bigger, or did the story spiral?

A: I always knew there were more books after Barricade—I just never seriously considered sequels until I signed with Gollancz. To my superstitious mind, to do so earlier would have been way too much like tempting fate.

When I started writing the book I knew I wanted the story to burn fast and hot. It had to, if it was going to reflect the emotionless, focused creature that narrates [Barricade].

The thing is, writing that way didn’t excuse me from doing a tremendous amount of background work. I had to refine extensive material, working out how Ficials are created, how they are optimised, how they communicate with Control, how their mission began and how it was perverted. It was the same for the Reals: who survived the Cull and how, where they are located, what is happening at other Barricades around the country, what their politics are and were, and even what is happening in the rest of the world.

Barricade-by-Jon-WallaceIt was essential to do all this if I was to give Kenstibec’s world life. I was constantly tempted to explore this expanded world, and had to fight hard to keep focused on the task in hand, as Kenstibec would have. With Steeple I have the chance to go exploring.

Q: There’s a certain consensus that says middle volumes, of trilogies in particular, are frequently the weakest, so what, I wonder, have you done to keep the Kenstibec books accessible to new readers at the same time as satisfying fans of Barricade?

A: Yes, the second book does require that you strike a delicate balance. You have to set up a fresh adventure that a new reader can happily explore, then decide how ambitious you’re going to be in terms of developing a trilogy-spanning story.

In terms of the new reader I think the trick is to catch them up in the excitement of the adventure, and in the setting and characters—in Steeple you’re actually introduced to a whole new society, whose traditions and people Kenstibec is getting to learn with you. That helps you find your place in this world and with this character. I think you have to sprinkle information about the previous book where possible, but you can’t get too obsessive about hammering in every little detail. There’s nothing wrong with leaving questions unanswered for a while—I think that can actually help pull the reader in.

At the same time I was really keen that Kenstibec should progress over the course of the three books, and I am pretty pleased with how Steeple fits into this effort. It remains true to Barricade’s key elements—a pacey, action-packed dystopian adventure with a taste for the grotesque—but moves Kenstibec’s story along too, giving him a real trajectory. His power is a little reduced in Steeple, but retains that perspective of something outside humanity looking in. It also expands his story through the flashbacks, delving further into his past, helping to explain how this world was created. I hope a new reader would want to read book three every bit as much as someone who’s read Barricade.

Q: In the review I wrote for Tor.com, I described Barricade as Mad Max with a bit of Battlestar Galactica. The press release announcing Steeple asserts it’s akin to The Raid meets Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? How would you yourself like the Kenstibec series to be seen?

A: Hell, I have no problem with those comparisons, who would? I guess they’ve been made because of the action in the books, and the presence of artificial life forms. All I would say is that these comparisons miss a couple of defining points when it comes to my books: first, the humour. I want my readers to chuckle every now and then. Second, these are very much British Science Fiction. I am a firm believer that this mad little island offers more than enough inspiration for a science fiction writer, and that the genre is in a unique position to discuss where we’re headed, and what we might become—a cluster of warring mini states? An isolationist swamp, ruled over by a nation-less, gene-polishing caste?  That’s a big part of what I’m trying to figure out with these books.

I for one can’t wait to see what Wallace makes of my “mad little island.” After all, Barricade was a little bit brilliant. Pretty fucked up, but so fast, and such fun. “A bona fide barnstormer of a book,” as I put it. The fact that Steeple’s nearly here is music to my ears. It’s due on June 18th—so save the date!

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.

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