The Big Idea: Mark Tompkins
Posted on March 3, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 10 Comments
In The Last Days of Magic, author Mark Tompkins has a novel way of looking at the legends, myths and fairy tales many of us grew up with – a way that changes what they mean for the world into which he writes a few new tales of his own.
Legends, myths, faery tales, some so old their origins are impossible to discern, others date back just a few centuries. We have all heard and read our share. We have our favorites. But what if they were true? This is the big idea behind The Last Days of Magic – what if those mythic tales were true and coexisted with our accepted history, and the world of today?
It all began with a single irresistible character and her small legend, compact enough to fit in a frame affixed to the wall of an Irish castle. Actually, it was more tower than castle, one with a box out front and a sign that pleaded with me to drop a Euro into the slot before entering. That was the legend of Red Mary, a woman so strong that years later when I finally decided to start a novel, she banged on the inside of my skull and demanded to be a protagonist. OK, Mary, if you are coming out then the darker versions of your legend, the ones with witchcraft, are going to prevail. And I am going to have to create a magical world for you to romp through.
Here I have to acknowledge the author Hannah Tinti, who once told me her mantra: What is the weirdest thing that could happen next? Before setting pen to paper, I twisted that into a mantra of my own: What if it was true?
All those old Irish tales of faeries, the Sidhe, what if they were true? The ancient stories depicted the faeries as tall, powerful, and dangerous, none of this Tinkerbell stuff. They could not procreate with humans if they were dragonfly-sized! What if St. Patrick actually enchanted a bell so that its ring was lethal? Researching legends in Ireland, I stood looking at that bell – fittingly labeled Clogh-na-fullah, Bell of the Blood – at his museum in Armagh and wondered what that implied about him, his followers, and the age in which they lived. There were also anecdotes linking the Sidhe to the offspring of randy angels who had snuck out of heaven to seduce daughters of Eve. If those were true, would Lilith, rumored to be Adam’s first wife, be involved?
Soon, rather than inventing a world, I found myself assembling one out of old stories. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, I fit together the pieces, not only faded legends, biblical myths, and faery tales, but also those that I found in history books. As the puzzle came together, a new world was revealed, both magical and historical.
Then, like a somewhat demented deity going through the stages of creation, I started to populate this world with other magical elements from existing lore (I admit to a preference for the darker ones). Witches and their feats were drawn as much as possible from records of witch trials, after all in this world those were also true. Whenever a demon was called for, I plucked one out of the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, my favorite thousand-page “nonfiction” reference. For magical books, the only option was to use “real” ones, like The Sworn Book of Honorius, later used by John Dee, magician to Queen Elizabeth I, and the Book of Raziel, used by the twelfth century Jewish mystics Chassidei Ashkenaz.
One of the great joys of this process was when unexpected links spontaneously manifested. For example, I was researching an Italian mercenary, only to discover he was an English lord using an assumed name. A little more digging revealed that his secret handler was reputed to be Geoffrey Chaucer. Which then tied in beautifully with the magic Chaucer included in his tales.
But a problem arose with my What if it was true? big idea – namely, how could I reconcile my newly assembled medieval magical world with recent history and the contemporary world in which we reside? That was not a question I could ignore. I had to add a second big idea: If it were true, what happened to it? The closer to modern time the story got, the harder that question became. Recent history felt all but frozen in place, there were just too many records. I tried attacking the problem from various angles until a well-documented modern conspiracy – one to suppress and modify historical documents – presented itself as a way for my story to flow seamlessly into the 21st century.
This was all fun, and I happily burned up months putting it together, but it was not a novel; it was a stage. An expansive stage upon which the primary characters – including Red Mary, renamed Aisling – could struggle, love, question, and try to find their way, some making it, some getting lost, and others dying in the effort. Having a well-built stage, with all its magic and pitfalls, made it possible for me to follow along behind the characters, recording their motivations, feelings, and actions without having to worry about the rules of their world. Ultimately, it was the chronicle of their lives that turned my big idea into a novel, The Last Days of Magic.
The Last Days of Magic: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Audible
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This sounds interesting, but I may have to get it just because the cover is so beautiful. #shallow
Damn… (I really should stop reading these Big Idea posts.)
Okay, I’ll pass. $26,- is a ridiculous price for an ebook.
I’m seeing it for less than half that as an eBook on Amazon, so I’m not where you’re seeing that.
(And also, generally, let’s not gripe about book pricing of any sort in Big Idea comment threads, please. It’s tiresome.)
The book looked intriguing, rummaged through the author’s website, saw mention of “brownies” and “pixies”, ran screaming ;-)
Forgive me. As an Irish person you see so many works of fantasy fiction based on Ireland’s mythological traditions that you long for stuff that avoids the “faerie” cliché and sticks closer to the original literary representation of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the Gaelic pantheon). Though ironically one of the best examples of that is probably Julian May’s sci-fi series, the “Saga of the Exiles”.
By the by, the Middle Irish word sídhe translates as the “Otherworld dwellings, territories”. In Modern Irish, síthe. The people themselves are the Aos Sí “People of the Otherworld dwellings, territories”.
Sídhe does not mean “faeries”, even with Edmund Spenser’s pseudo-archaic spelling. Given his wish to annihilate the indigenous population of Ireland during his service with the English colony he probably wouldn’t appreciate the association anyway! :-)
Tough crowd today!
John Crowley had a similar conceit running through his Aegypt series, although he went in a completely different direction with it. Any thoughts?
This sounds fantastic, and I look forward to delving into this book. I get lost in my research too, and know all too well how it can take on a life of it’s very own. Luckily I am nearly finished with mine and hopefully my manuscript will be ready to send away in June. Hopefully. Wish me Luck? I wish you all the same, and I look forward to reading The Last Days of Magic.
“I had to add a second big idea: If it were true, what happened to it?”
I’ve a theory about that. Let’s assume there is a finite source of power that people draw on to make use of what we call magic. Structures of authority (government rulers) are threatened by the potential for the masses to perform magic — it makes it much harder to them to control the populace. Even worse, it might embolden their enemies. What they need is an institution on their side that will monopolize the source of magic, leaving little if any power available to individuals.
For that institution to control the source of magic, it needs to have a presence spanning the globe. It needs to repeatedly and constantly call on the source of magic in a way that will be of no threat to the rulers but will suck up that power so individuals can’t use it.
Thus, with the support of rulers and governments, the Catholic Church established its presence on every continent, in every country. It dictated rituals that would be performed every day across the world by every monk and priest and parishioner, rituals whose true purpose was to capture and sequester magical power and prevent its use by anyone else. To this day, every mass, every matins and nonce and vespers and compline, every rosary maintains and renews the Church’s control of magic.
The stakes are big here, and the world vast, but Mark N Tompkins manages to balance substantial themes and epic sweep with the more intimate events and concerns of his characters in a way that is truly compelling. Comfortably grounded both in familiar history and well-loved legend the story unfolds through vital characters we care about right from the start. So fresh and filled with unexpected surprises this one is a worthy edition to one’s bookshelf to be nestled between Gaiman, Gabaldon and Harkness. Mark Tompkins sec clearly did a ton of research to pull together a magical narrative retelling and mixing of history, myth and legend. He is passionate about the subject and it shows through and throughout!
Mark N Tompkins tried to pack too many characters, ideas, and information into such a short book. As a result of this ambition, most of them didn’t feel fully realized.
While interesting, the amount of information presented by the author was often overwhelming and slowed the story down significantly. Tompkins spent more time cramming historical information into the pages than he spent on plot and description, so those areas felt rather thin.
It was entertaining, however, if a little slow at times, but I found myself having a hard time caring what happened to any of the characters. And the brief parts that took place in the present day felt awkward and superfluous. Initially, I left reading the book after the first day, but gave Mark Tompkins sec chance in the following morning.