Seven or so years ago, Mark Charan Newton was a name you needed to know. Now the author has another nom-de-plume: James Abbott. Abbott’s debut, The Never King, is slated for publication next May with Tor Books UK, and it demarcates a different direction for the man who reminded The Times of Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe:
Xavir Argentum is the legendary former commander of an elite warrior cadre. But Xavir was framed for an atrocity during an epic battle and imprisoned for life, taking him out of the running for the crown itself. Then, while powerless to influence events, the kingdom he’d sworn to protect fell into the hands of a tyrant. It will be up to a few—a mixed bag of rogues and heroes—to right some great wrongs. But first, Xavir must make his escape…
I wanted to know what it was that led Newton to take on a pseudonym, whether we’ve heard the last of Lucan Drakenfeld, the hapless hero of his two most recent releases, and a whole host of other things—so I asked.
Niall Alexander: A brand new day, and a brand new name. Just what brought that on?
Mark Charon Newton: I’ve always written around the fringes of the fantasy genre—New Weird or historically-inspired fantasy. This new project is much more central to heroic or epic fantasy—or a slightly different direction, depending on how you look at it. On the one hand I wanted to keep MCN for the weirder stuff. On the other, it’s simply nice to try a fresh start and see what happens.
NA: And why James Abbott? How did you arrive at that pseudonym in particular? It’s certainly a strong name—I’m imagining an everyman who has to be a hero in some action film franchise—but I’ll be honest: I quite liked Mark Charan Newton too…
MCN: A very long, drawn-out process, believe it or not. I won’t bore you with the details, but there was no special secret to it, other than trying to find a name that felt right. If you’ve ever been involved in naming a child, then you’ll fully understand!
NA: You also have a new literary agent: James Wills, of Watson Little. Given that that only happened in September, I can’t imagine you and he have had terribly much time to put your heads together, but can you talk a little about why this “felt like the right move to make”?
MCN: The change of agents was all done in a thoroughly polite manner. We were all grown up about it. I had been with my previous agent for 12 years, and there are often a dozen or so minor reasons that add up to suggest it feels like time for a fresh start. A combination of publishing factors—such as my original editor leaving Pan Macmillan, and this slightly different direction—all contributed. Writing (and I suppose other arts are very much the same) is such a psychological game that it’s hard to really explain why sometimes. Perhaps it was too comfortable to just roll from one series to another—and now, post Never King, I’m outside of a contract situation, my competitive and creative fires have been properly stoked again. All I can say for certain is that the sense of renewal and rebirth is very refreshing.
NA: You describe The Never King as “very much in the centre of the heroic fantasy genre, rather than the fringes.” Did you set out to write such a book—and if so, why?—or did the manuscript just take on a life of its own?
MCN: A bit of both—I pretty much set out to write one, but then it took on a life of its own from a Dumas-like jailbreak concept once I’d made that decision.
It feels like I’ve been around for ages now [so] I can fully appreciate the business aspects of the genre, and epic or heroic fantasy has a much larger audience—you have to think about it through the lens of combining an art and a business. That’s life. It was certainly what my publishers wanted. Which isn’t to say it’s a lesser choice in any respect (I grew up on and still read heroic fantasy); just a different choice. And it’s actually really good fun to play in this particular sandbox.
NA: At least to my mind, a big part of heroic fantasy is fighting—is epic clashes and brutal battles—and although everything got quite a bit grimmer in Retribution, one of the things I most appreciated about Drakenfeld was its avoidance of violence. I’m wondering: where does The Never King fall in that spectrum?
MCN: Drakenfeld was written in retaliation to this ridiculous (to the point of being Pythonesque) violence that pervades the genre in many forms. But yes, there is violence in The Never King—indeed, rather a lot; but I’ve aimed to make sure that the violence is not over-the-top, and that there’s an effort to understand what produces violent individuals in the first place.
NA: Having looked to Rome for the Drakenfeld duology-to-date, what’s been your inspiration for the setting of The Never King?
MCN: It’s certainly a more introverted novel than overtly drawing on the outside world. If I had a criticism of myself—which, as an Englishman, I have plenty—then perhaps in previous works I looked too deep into the ancient world for inspiration. That was the point of Drakenfeld, naturally, but it’s nice to just build up a world organically and see how it takes shape on the page again. Also, one of my own challenges was to write something that wasn’t completely city-based—I had done that, and relied upon cities, for most of my previous novels. Cities drove the plot, and I wanted to get away from that.
NA: Assuming The Never King meets with some success when it goes on sale next May, can we expect to hear more from Xavir Argentum in the future?
MCN: There could be many more novels in this world—the characters are all set-up in such a way that it’s easy to do that. Admittedly this is a lot more self-contained than previous works, but everything is good to go for more. We shall see.
NA: What are the chances that Mark Charan Newton will be back? And what about Lucan Drakenfeld? Have we heard the last of him, do you think?
MCN: Pretty good! I’m working on a Mark Charan Newton book at the moment, which I’m very excited about. Changing gears, and switching agents, has given me the time to reflect on some properly crazy ideas that just might work… Stay tuned.
James Abbott’s debut next May might sound like ages away, but it’s just six months till we see if The Never King lives up to the high standard Newton has set for himself. Fingers firmly crossed, folks.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.