With last year’s The Midnight Front, an exciting tale of magicians fighting Nazis in World War II, writer David Mack kicked off his Dark Arts military fantasy series. But in the following email interview about his new Dark Arts novel The Iron Codex (paperback, Kindle), he explains why the second book in this ongoing series isn’t about those same magicians fighting the same Nazis in the same World War.
Photo Credit: David Cross
To start, what is the Dark Arts series about?
The Dark Arts series is a secret-history dark fantasy set against the international geopolitics of the mid- to late-twentieth century. It principally follows the adventures of Cade Martin and Anja Kernova, while also depicting into the lives and struggles of other karcists — i.e., sorcerers — whose paths intersect with theirs through the years.
And then what is The Iron Codex about, when does it take place, and how does it relate, narratively and chronologically, to the first book, The Midnight Front?
The Iron Codex is a fast-paced spy thriller. Its main story details an international race to find Anja Kernova and take from her the titular magickal grimoire, which grants its possessor access to powerful rituals as well as to angelic magick, which in ceremonial magic is known as the Pauline Art, as opposed to the Goetic Art, which harnesses the powers of demons.
Whereas the series’ first book,The Midnight Front, chronicled a six-year period from August 1939 to September 1945, book two covers events from just the first two months or so of 1954.
With that jump forward in time to the early days of the Cold War comes a shift in several key relationships. The most prominent change is the connection between Cade and Anja. In book one they were rivals who became grudging allies and friends. In the nine years since the end of World War II, they dallied with a romantic relationship that ended badly, and now they both are feeling the aftereffects of that misstep. Cade is on the skids while working as a magickal assassin for MI6 in French Indochina, and Anja runs herself ragged hunting Nazis in South America.
Rounding out the cast are returning character Briet Segfrunsdottir, now working for the United States as the master karcist of its Occult Defense Program beneath the Pentagon; a new villain named Dragan Dalca; and a new friendly rival, a White Magician named Father Luis Pérez.
When, in relation to writing The Midnight Front, did you come up the idea for The Iron Codex, what inspired it, and how did that original concept change as you wrote this novel?
I had the germs of ideas for books two and three of the Dark Arts series while I was still working on The Midnight Front. However, the specific details of the plot for The Iron Codex did not come together until after The Midnight Front was finished and had spent months researching and timelining, looking for real moments in history around and upon which I could build my tale.
My original plan for The Iron Codex was to make more prominent use of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his “Red Scare” hunt for Communists and Socialists in the U.S. government. That element later ended up minimized because it didn’t serve my larger story. I had always planned on including sequences of Anja hunting fugitive Nazis in South America, though my first draft of a proposal for book two included killing off certain characters who I later decided to spare.
In our previous interview about The Midnight Front [which you can read here], you said that your plan for this series was that each book would be a self-contained story. Why did you feel it was important for these books to be stand-alone stories?
One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from readers of ongoing series is the frustration they feel when a book ends on a cliffhanger and the next book’s publication is a year or more away. Although this issue becomes moot once all the books of a series are out, it seems like a cruel thing to do to one’s readers when the series is still in progress.
Having seen the masterful way that F. Paul Wilson, for instance, managed stand-alone adventures within the ongoing continuity of his Repairman Jack novels, I decided that I wanted to take a similar approach. Just as each of his Repairman Jack novels tells a complete tale while also contributing to the series’ continuity, I want each book in the Dark Arts series to provide a complete narrative while expanding readers’ understanding of my fictional take on real history.
Does that mean someone doesn’t need to read The Midnight Front to understand what’s going on in The Iron Codex?
I wouldn’t recommend that, per se, but it could be done. If readers were to pick up The Iron Codex and start reading without any previous knowledge of the series or its characters, they would be able to follow along. Any key information about characters’ relationships, backstory, or motivations is made clear in the text.
Likewise, I included a quick recap of the mechanics of my magickal system, to refresh the memories of those who have read book one, or to introduce it to those who might for whatever reason jump in cold with book two.
Of course, some people will go and read The Midnight Front before jumping into The Iron Codex.
I certainly hope so.
What do you think they will get out of doing this, as opposed to if they didn’t read The Midnight Front first, or didn’t read it at all?
I think that if one were to readThe Midnight Front first, it would deepen one’s understanding of the relationship between Cade And Anja, the animosity between them and Briet Segrfunsdottir, and the importance and power ofThe Iron Codex.
Another good reason to read book one first is that key aspects of Anja’s story arc in book two — in which she, not Cade, is the main character — hinge upon recontextualizing and redefining a handful of pivotal moments from book one.
You also said in that interview that you wanted every book in the Dark Arts series to be a different kind of book as well. So what kind of book is The Iron Codex and why is it that?
The Iron Codex is a spy thriller very much in the vein of classic James Bond novels from the 1950s and 1960s, up to and including nuclear threats and plots for world domination.
Part of my rationale for taking this approach to Dark Arts was to avoid the trap of writing the same novel over and over with different stage dressing. For instance, as much as I enjoyed writing a war epic in The Midnight Front, I knew I didn’t want subsequent books in the series to be the same thing but set in different conflicts such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc.
Of course, one of the sad truths of the publishing business is that writers tend to try to find even one thing they do that sells, and then they are expected to write that book over and over again in various permutations until it stops selling.
The core concept of my Dark Arts series flies in the face of that expectation. And it’s a decision that I fear I might come to regret.
Maybe…but maybe not. So are there any that were a big influence on The Iron Codex but not on The Midnight Front?
I would certainly say that The Iron Codex owes more of a literary debt to Ian Fleming and John Le Carre than does The Midnight Front, while the latter lacks any such specific inspirations.
How about non-literary influences? Are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you think had a big impact on The Iron Codex?
As it happens, the biggest influences on my work in The Iron Codex were musical. I drew significant inspiration from the original scores to such films as Kingsman: The Secret Service [by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson], X-Men: First Class [Henry Jackman], and Wonder Woman [Rupert Gregson-Williams]. In particular, the last several tracks on the first Kingsman soundtrack directly inspired the ending sequence of The Iron Codex.
Interesting. So, you mentioned earlier doing research for this book. What kind of research did you do?
I researched a great many subjects in order to achieve what I considered to be an acceptable degree of verisimilitude in my depiction of early 1954. Music, cars, hairstyles, fashions, weapons, modes of transportation. I also delved into the origins of the Cold War and the flight of Nazis from Europe into South America, which was done with considerable help from “ratlines” facilitated by the Roman Catholic Church and masterminded by a Catholic prelate, Bishop Alois Hudal. I even went so far as to visit the Vatican so that I could learn about its layout and the history of the papal private archives.
Among the non-fiction tomes I selected for my research on this novel were Stalin’s Curse by Robert Gellately and Castles Made Of Sand by Andre Gerolymatos. In addition, some inspiration for Cade’s mystical side-quest in The Iron Codex was derived from Thomas Ligotti’s book on pessimism and nihilistic philosophy and its applications to writing horror fiction, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race.
You’ve said that your plan for the Dark Arts series was that the third book would be called The Shadow Commission, and would be “a paranoid conspiracy piece that takes place in late 1963 and early 1964, in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” Is that still the plan?
That is still very much the plan. It is a paranoid conspiracy piece, chock full of violent betrayals.
As far as its setting, I condensed the bulk of its action to a single week, starting with the day of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
I completed a first draft of The Shadow Commission earlier this year, but after reviewing some excellent feedback from my editor, agent, and beta reader, I concluded that I needed to rewrite the second half of the novel for structural and motivational reasons. I am at present working on that rewrite. If I complete my revisions in accordance with the revised schedule, book three is tentatively slated for publication on June 9, 2020.
Returning once more to our previous interview, I asked if there had been any interest in adapting The Midnight Front, and thus the Dark Arts series, into a movie, TV show, or video game, and you said, “No one has approached me yet.” Is that still the case?
There still have been no inquiries concerning film or television options. I have no idea why. I imagine that if Overlord turns out to be a big hit this holiday season, there might be a resurgence of interest in World War II-era supernatural thrillers, and maybe for historical fantasy in general.
Part of what frustrates me about this process was learning that, unless one’s book hits the bestseller list and stays there, or wins a bunch of major awards, getting the attention of Hollywood is pretty much impossible, no matter how commercially viable the project might be.
You see, it’s not as if agents actively send the book to producers and studios to solicit interest. All agents do is wait for a producer or studio to ask if they have anything whose description matches one or more of the un-optioned literary properties on their desks. If they get a match, they send over the likely candidates. If not, tough luck.
Which is maddening, because Dark Arts would make such a great Amazon, Netflix, or HBO series. It would also be great on AMC. Or on FX. Or…well, you get the idea.
If someone was interested in making a Dark Arts TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles, and why them?
If the show were being cast and shot today, I think that Susanna Skaggs [Halt And Catch Fire] would be amazing as Anja Kernova; she has the right look and attitude. Tom Holland [Spider-man: Homecoming] has the right everyman quality to portray Cade Martin. Karen Gillan [Guardians Of The Galaxy] could embody the inner conflicts of Briet Segfrunsdottir. Michael Fassbender [X-Men: First Class] has the slick evil smile of Kein Engel. And Tommy Flanagan [Sons Of Anarchy] would be a sublime choice for Scottish vulgarian and ancient master karcist Adair MacRae.
The Iron Codex also features a few new faces. For the role of wise man Khalil el-Sahir, I’d like to see Oded Fehr [The Mummy], though he’d need some makeup to appear a few decades older than he really is. In the role of Father Luis Perez, Diego Luna [Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] would be amazing; he would really bring out the nobility of that character. As for the story’s new villain, Dragan Dalca, that role seems tailor-made for the charm and intensity of German actor Volker Bruch [Babylon Berlin].
Finally, if someone enjoys The Iron Codex, what similar novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for The Shadow Commission to come out and why that?
To readers who have enjoyed my Dark Arts novels, I would definitely recommend the American Craftsmen series by Tom Doyle. A great mix of military action, ceremonial magic, and fun characters. His settings tend to be more modern than mine, so that’s great for readers who aren’t big history buffs.
Another great option would be R.S. Belcher’s Nightwise books: Nightwise and The Night Dahlia, his novels The Brotherhood Of The Wheel and King Of The Road, and his weird-western Golgotha series, to which I’ve dropped some respectful homages in my Dark Arts novels.