I think that may have just changed my attitude. Ecko Rising by Danie Ware is a fantasy novel that carries itself like a science fiction one, and also a science fiction novel that carries itself like a fantasy epic. Set in a London under the mood-levelling cosh, it follows Ecko, a barely-sane, cybernetically-enhanced assassin as he takes a job and something goes very, very wrong. Ecko is found by the staff of The Wanderer, a pub that moves from place to place constantly and soon realises he’s not only left London, he’s left his world…
It’s a great book, crammed with incident and character and a palpable sense of horror and danger to the fight sequences. I talked to Danie about her influences, Ecko, mass combat and the book’s unique take on magic.
What are your influences as a writer?
“This one’s always a hard thing to answer, because so many of them are subconscious – you don’t realise that an author or style is an influence until you read something back, or someone else mentions it. But from my teenage years, Julian May and Stephen Donaldson; from my twenties William Gibson and Neal Stephenson; from my thirties Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palanhiuk; then finally from my forties and coming back to the grittier edge of fantasy brought by recent authors like Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan. I’ve also read a lot of historical novelisations, particularly classical and military!”
Ecko, certainly as the novel opens, has a definitively British feel with the action set in London. Was that a deliberate choice or did you consider other cities?
“I live and work here, spend a great deal of time feeling the city’s life and how it moves and breathes – how it changes mood. The original draft of the chapters actually set them somewhere else, but then one day I was standing outside Titan House looking up at the building opposite – and thinking about falling off the roof (as you do) – and it all started from there!”
The London we see there is horrifying, in a very polite, weirdly British way. What led you to that particular idea?
“A moment of absolute honesty: after I had my son, I went through a period of post-natal depression and was prescribed a mood stabiliser – and it was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. My world became grey; I felt nothing and cared about nothing, and somewhere under the empty drift of happiness, it chilled me to the core of my soul. The London that we see in the book – and the concept of ‘Kazyen’ that we see in the other world, the fantasy world – both came from that experience.”
How much of Ecko's onboard weaponry and enhancements did you work out before starting the book? Did anything present itself as being needed as you were writing?
“Ecko’s kit and enhancements, and how he acquired them, were so fundamentally intertwined with the savagery of his character that the whole thing came to be in one glorious and twisted package. He’s undergone almost no tweaks during the course of writing the book. In fact, it’s been harder trying to slowly peel these things away from him and find out who he then becomes… but that’s another story!”
Ecko is the most cheerfully grumpy hero I've read in ages. Was that a reaction to the usual troubled, big-chested hero types of traditional novels like this?
“I’m not sure it was a reaction, it was just the way the character was always going to be; the way he was crafted, as I just explained. He came from my inner cynical streak: that part of me that has read a bit too much classic fantasy; that part that reaches for a bucket ever time I see a troupe of singing elves. He comes from the defiant streak in all of us, from that dark heart that chants ‘F*ck you I won’t do what you tell me.’
“There’s a bit of Ecko in everybody – and sometimes, we all feel the need to let it out.”
The book has a very refreshing take on magic. How did that come about?
“One of the few things that was a conscious and deliberate choice; it was put together when I started writing in the early ’90s. I wanted to bin spell lists, wand waving, chanting and all of that malarkey, and wanted something that was less academic and much more dangerous and passionate – and yet still something that worked within the context of the book.
“So I took ‘fantasy’ back to its basics – to JRR and his love of Saxon England; to my own familiarity with the Viking mythos – and based a magic system on the points of the Dark Age runic compass. Rather than the traditional Earth, Air, Fire and Water, we have Ice and Fire, Light and Darkness. The elemental ‘souls’ and the powerflux were an integral part of this – they provided the anchoring points and methodology by which the elementalist could ‘attune’ themselves to the passion of their choice. And from there, they became part of the story.
“The thing about elementalism is that it’s limitless – once that wielder is successfully attuned, the powerflux flows straight through them and they become almost a channel. And, in reverse, if they lose that attunement, then finding it again requires a huge effort of will. It’s highly emotional magic, charged and raw and unstable. And that makes it fun!”
The Wanderer is a fascinating idea. What led you to come up with the idea of a wandering tavern?
“Once upon a time, I was working in a meat-packing factory in Little Melton in Norfolk and, as University holidays went, it really wasn’t how I wanted to spend my summer. The Wanderer (originally ‘The Wandering Bard’) was a sort of Memory Palace, a place to go when the monotony of the work became too much. The jumping came about as a humorous quirk – after joining the Vike, we spent so much time travelling across the country, from shows to castles to displays, that the desire to teleport became a standing joke.
“And if you’re going to teleport, why not take the beer with you?”
What fascinated me was how the Wanderer almost serves as a ship, trading and bringing information between disparate places. Did that prove useful to plotting the book?
“Writing a story where your central players and points of power have no instant method of communication is a right pain in the backside. You end up spending forever calculating horse-speeds and dates and travel times and moon phases and who-knows-what-and-when all sorts of other things. The jumping of the Wanderer was a very handy device to get me out of a plot hole or two!”
Maugrim is one of the most memorably horrific, and very unusual, villains I've read in years. What went into his creation?
“Doctor Ralph Wilkinson aka ‘Maugrim’, was a part of the original concept – but, like Ecko himself, grew significantly darker with the intervening years. The original idea was a bit of fun, centred around the image of him sending them all to sleep with his pocket watch… but he got loose and then he took on a life of his own.
“I’ve mentioned already that elementalism can be limitless – and when it’s entwined with the (re)creation of a character and how that character operates as a part of the overall storyline… given free rein, Maugrim just didn’t know when to quit. His attunement changed him, made him very sexual, predatory, passionate and angry – all things in keeping with the element itself – and his imprisonment of Amethea surged out of all cohesive control. The relationship between them became both intense and pivotal, not only to each of them as characters but to the entire narrative arc. Maugrim was always going to be a shrink, an echo-back of the ‘SF’ world – but beyond that, he was calling the shots, I think.
“Apart from the scratchy beard, but that’s another story entirely.”
The fight scenes are, frankly, amazing. There's a palpable air of danger and you get a real sense of tactics and experience colliding with the world, of literally no plan surviving contact with the enemy. What influenced the fighting styles of the characters and the tempo of the scenes?
“In ten years of re-enactment, I’ve really done this – trained with various weapons, used them in combat, both in one-on-one fights and as part of a larger unit. I’ve fought against them, and got my arse kicked. Most of the characters – Redlock being the prime example – have combat-styles based on training I’ve done or people I’ve known.
“But it’s more than that – it’s about how combat really feels. I’ve felt the almighty roar that goes up from the Normans at Hastings. I’ve been right in the middle of the savage personal fighting that used to go on at the Battle Of The Flags at Warwick Castle (that one got banned in the end). I’ve come as close as anyone’s going to get to the fear and the chaos and the lust and the noise that’s actual melee combat.
“And it’s really not like the stuff they write in the books.”
Ecko Rising is out now from Titan Books, price £7.99