The Big Idea: Brian McClellan
Nothing is constant but change — and changing times can be an interesting opportunity for a writer to document the upheaval of societies, standards and even power structures (fictional or otherwise). So Brian McClellan discovered with Promise of Blood, the first of his Powder Mage series. Here’s McClellan to explain.
A little over three years ago, my wife brought home the first episode of a British television program called Sharpe, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels. It was a wonderful show that featured Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe, a tough-as-nails officer rising up the ranks of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars. Needless to say, I was intrigued. A show where Sean Bean doesn’t die? Sounds like a blast.
At this point I was working on ideas for my next novel. I was a little down in the dumps from rejections over my last book and was looking for an idea that would really hook the imagination. I wanted to write something that featured magic based on gunpowder, and had been toying with the idea of a short story set during the Prohibition.
This all changed when my wife brought home Sharpe. By half way through the show I had decided that I’d be writing an epic fantasy novel based on the technology level of the Napoleonic Wars. By the end of the episode I had a rough outline in my head. I started writing it the next day.
I quickly realized the wealth of inspiration for a novel that could come from that time period. Napoleon’s rise to power and the subsequent struggle for control throughout the various Coalition Wars is an epic tale all on its own that could be viewed from any of a hundred different perspectives.
Men like Napoleon were products of the changing times, somehow managing to navigate the turmoil brought about by countless factions vying for control of the political and social landscape. During the French Revolution, the decadence of monarchs like Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette was eclipsed by the brutal reign of Madame la Guillotine. The age of kings and their courts was coming to an end.
At the same time, the Industrial Revolution swept across Europe, changing the way people thought about everything from politics and manufacturing to agriculture and class roles. Technology advanced at a pace never before seen. These advances gave men the ability to feed and clothe the greater population, while also allowing armies to kill on a greater scale than previously imagined.
Kings were pulled down. Some empires expanded to include colonies in distant places; others were dissolved in favor of governments run by the people. Promise of Blood begins in this vein with a revolution; a bloody coup. Field Marshal Tamas sends his king and the high nobility of his beloved Adro to the guillotine, almost single-handedly beginning a new era of independence.
Tamas represents a rising class of sorcerers, ‘Powder Mages’, who gain speed, strength, and endurance from ingesting gunpowder. This new form of modern magic is at odds with the old elemental sorcery of the ‘Privileged’ which is practiced almost exclusively by the nobility. Caught in the middle are the common people, many of whom possess “knacks” or magical talents of their own.
I wanted the various magic systems to reflect the class struggles that follow a period of revolution and upheaval. I wanted to explore what would happen if magic evolved along with technology. How does magic change when gunpowder is introduced? What if the very existence of this new technology of powder and steel changed the DNA of the magical world? How would it affect the outcome of a revolution?
Writing Promise of Blood allowed me to address themes of power, privilege, risk and revolution. Historical events like the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars helped inspire me to create compelling characters faced with the momentous task of rebuilding a world where not only society, but magic itself, is changing.