An Interview with RJ Barker, Author of The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy
Just in case you missed all the gushing in my rave reviews of Age of Assassins and Blood of Assassins, you should know that The Wounded Kingdom trilogy is fast becoming one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. The third installment, Blood of Assassins, is due to hit shelves later this year, and I’m looking forward to it so much that I’m already counting down the days to its release. I am so honored and excited today to welcome author RJ Barker to The BiblioSanctum to chat about his books, his writing process, and a whole lot more! Please enjoy our Q&A!
Hi RJ, thank you for the interview, we’re very excited to have you join us today!
Hi BiblioSanctum! I am thrilled to be talking to you. When I first signed with Orbit another writer told me ‘oh doing interviews will get boring really quickly’ but it so hasn’t. I am like an excited puppy every time.
I’m so glad you’re excited too! First, I’d like to congratulate you on the success of The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. I’m loving it so far! Two of the books are out right now, with the third one to be released later this year. To kick us off, can you give us a quick rundown of what the series is about, and who the main characters are?
Yes! The books are, at heart, murder mysteries if you want to speak about pure plot, and each one stands alone in that way in that it tells a total story, you’re not left hanging at the end. The Main Characters are Girton Club-Foot, who is very martially skilled but not particularly worldly, especially when it comes to his peers, and Merela Karn, his master who is his teacher and a parental figure. Although the murder mystery might be the hook that starts you reading, their relationship is why you stay. Or I hope it’s why you would stay, anyway. Then, around them are a host of other characters all with various interlocking relationships that affect Girton, Merela and how the books progress.
Girton and Merela’s relationship is exactly why I’m so addicted to these books. What made you want to write a fantasy series about assassins? And what inspired you to include the mystery aspect?
I have no idea why I ended up writing a mystery about assassins. I can look back and sort of work it out but I really thought I was going to be an SF or Crime writer and then this idea, well, it just appeared. And it was INSISTENT. I wrote the first draft of Age of Assassins in about six weeks because it was just there, in my head and it all made sense. The mystery element I understand bit more cos as well as reading lots of fantasy and Sf when I was young I was brought up on sort of golden age Crime writers like Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham and the big draw in writing Age of Assassins was doing the whole sort of “drawing room” scene were you find out what was really going on. I love scenes like that, every time someone says ‘exposition is bad’ you should be allowed it hit them with a copy of an Agatha Christie. Well, maybe not hit, I’m not into violence. Maybe just give them a light tap on the head and say ‘not always, eh, mon ami?'
Your protagonist, Girton Clubfoot, is one of the most genuine characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I also love his master-apprentice relationship with Merela, who is both a teacher and surrogate mother figure to him. Where do you find the ideas for your characters? Are any of them inspired by yourself or people you know in real life?
Everything is inspired by people I know or myself. When I started Age of Assassins, our little boy was about four and I was just becoming very aware of how important it is to watch how you are and how you treat this tiny forming human. Because we can ruin them without ever meaning to and there’s a lot of the experience of being a parent in AoA books. Also, I’ve always been a person who’s considered a bit odd, not in an unpleasant way or a way that made me unpopular but just in a way that left me aware I didn’t quite fit in, that definitely came in. And I’ve been very ill and that’s quite obviously wrapped up in Girton but, hopefully, the thing I bring most from me, and the people around me, is good people do good things. Though the world is grim, and bad things happen, good people do good things and it’s an important thing. Good people are out there doing good things every day.
Blood of Assassins jumps ahead approximately five years after the end of Age of Assassins, and likewise it appears we will get another gap of many years between books two and three, according to the description of King of Assassins. In fact, the whole trilogy is told from the point of view of an older Girton, recalling the events of his past. How do you handle the challenge of writing about a character at different stages of his life like that?
My plan from the start was to have big gaps between the books. One of my favourite writers is Patrick O’Brian (who wrote the books Master and Commander is based on) and he tends to leave big gaps between books where a lot happens ‘off screen’ so to speak. So there was that.
Anyone who’s seen me read or do a panel will have noticed that I’m quite an easily-distracted person, too, so I needed to make sure I didn’t get bored and these gaps allow me to sort of reinvent everything for every book. But, I also wanted, from the start, to take quite a ‘classic’ fantasy story (in this case the rise of a king) and tell it from a different angle – that of someone more behind-the-scenes, who maybe you would never read about in the history books. So I had in mind the idea of taking three really pivotal moments from this king’s story, and where maybe in a classic fantasy narrative it would be all ‘and then he rode to the rescue in his shiny armour,’ in the wounded kingdom books I get to show all these people behind that who had just as much influence on what happened. But it felt really natural and the best way of doing what I wanted, which was to show people grow and change.
I’ve veered wildly away from your question haven’t I?
TL/DR. I stole from Patrick O’Brian.
Ha, that was awesome! Speaking of which, what were some of the best moments for you when writing this trilogy? And on the flip side, what were some of the most trying and difficult?
Oh, this makes me sound awful and quite irritating but it has all been pretty wonderful. I am so very aware how unlikely and lucky I am to be in this position where, for now, I am making enough from writing to live off and people seem to be enjoying what I am doing. I mean there are moments when I complain on social media but it’s all pretty light-hearted and when it comes down to it there is no way on earth writing is harder than eight hours in a call-centre, or working on a building site, or being trapped in poverty and worrying about where every penny is coming from. So what I am doing – my favourite hobby and getting paid – is kind of amazing, to me, and I wake up aware of that. When your biggest difficulty is that sometimes you’d actually rather be playing on the PS4 than doing edits then it’s not really a difficulty at all.
I understand, and I don’t think it’s awful or irrtating at all, and in fact it’s actually quite wonderful. Now that we’ve talked a little about your books, I also want to talk about you, the author! Can you tell us a RJ Barker Fun Fact, something about yourself that might surprise readers?
I think, maybe people who’ve only seen me at things and know me through that or social media might be surprised to find out that I am actually a really quiet person. I like nothing better than being on my own. I love people, and being around them, but I’d also be a really good hermit too. Apart from the growing a beard but ‘cos I’d be rubbish at growing a beard.
Which authors or books have been your greatest influences?
This will be A LONG LIST. Watership Down by Richard Adams, Iain M Banks’s Culture books, The Chronicles of Morgaine by C.J. Cherryh, Patrick O Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake books, Robert Crais, John Connolly and James Lee Burke and Bernard Cornwell’s Winter King trilogy. And also the British comic 2000AD was a huge influence, particularly Slaine and Nemesis the Warlock.
Do you have other creative outlets besides writing? What hobbies or pastimes do you enjoy?
I love music. I was a (very bad) musician for a long time before I started writing and I listent o music all the time when I work or in the car or doing whatever I am doing. I’m really drawn to music that isn’t like me so angry and sinister music is my thing, even though I am possibly one of the least angry and sinister people you are ever likely to meet. Reading. Obviously. I love games too, mostly first person role-playing stuff and now I have finished the Wounded Kingdom books I am going back and playing the new Assassin’s Creed game which is great cos I love ancient Egypt and I am enjoying pretending to be a Medjay.
I’ve been itching to play that one myself. I’m glad to hear the new AC’s good. Anyway, the final volume of The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, King of Assassins, is set to come out this summer, and I can’t wait! What’s next for Girton? Is there anything about the book you can share with us at this point, or tease what’s in store?
Well, there’s another big jump, sixteen years this time so we get Girton as an adult which has been nice to do as I wanted to slap him for at least half of Blood of Assassins. Quite a few people have said they wanted more about Merela and I kind of think about Age of Assassins as Girton’s book and King of Assassins as Merela’s.
We’re going to some very dark places.
Oh my goodness, that is seriously giving me chills. I’m also thrilled to hear about Merela, because I love her, LOVE HER. Are there any other projects you are working on currently, or have plans for in the near future, that you’d like to share (either writing or non-writing related)?
I’m working on a new thing that will be ship based. And for the special editions of the Wounded Kingdom books I’ve worked with an artist friend of mine called Tom Parker who is horrendously talented and I’d like to find an excuse for the two of us to work together on something. (He’s recently been doing some early concept sketches for the mounts form the books and they can be found on his Facebook page, Tom Parker Illustration.) I’m also always writing short stories and things and looking out for interesting things to do. I try not to stay no to stuff unless I really can’t fit it in.
It sounds like you’ll be busy! Thank you so much again for stopping by and sharing your time with us, RJ! Wrapping up, where can readers find out more about you and your work?
My twitter is a good place @dedbutdrmng or my Facebook author page is under @thatrjbarker. I’m in the midst of launching a website but I’m not sure if it will be up and running by the time this is up. It’s been lovely talking to you, thank you ever so much for inviting me.
- It’s like Poirot is IN THE ROOM.
RJ Barker lives in Leeds with his wife, son and a collection of questionable taxidermy, odd art, scary music and more books than they have room for. He grew up reading whatever he could get his hands on, and has always been ‘that one with the book in his pocket’. Having played in a rock band before deciding he was a rubbish musician, RJ returned to his first love, fiction, to find he is rather better at that. As well as his debut epic fantasy novel, Age of Assassins, RJ has written short stories and historical scripts which have been performed across the country. He has the sort of flowing locks any cavalier would be proud of.