Looking at his pre-writing career as a producer on such video games as Burnout Paradise, Black, and Split/Second, you might expect Adrian Selby’s novels to be all about fast cars and faster trigger fingers. Instead, he’s crafted three stand-alone tales of what he calls “grimheart” fantasy set in the realm of Sarun. In the following email interview, Selby discusses the latest installment, Brother Red (paperback, Kindle), as well as his plans for this loosely connected series.
To start, what is Brother Red about, and in what kind of world is it set?
So, Brother Red is me setting out to answer the question: “What does victory look like when your enemy simply cannot be defeated?” It’s the story of a soldier, Driwna, who works for the most powerful merchant guild in my world, The Post, a kind of Dutch or British East India Company. She is guarding a caravan when it’s attacked by bandits. After surviving the attack, she finds, in one of the broken barrels, a dead body, one of a rare and powerful race, and hugely valuable. Her investigations lead her to uncover a conspiracy and ultimately an enemy more deadly than she could imagine.
The world might be considered a low fantasy world. The magic is in the plant life; brews and potions concocted from the world’s plants have incredibly potent effects on people. In particular, when going into battle, soldiers take fightbrews that enhance their capability so significantly that wars cannot be fought without them, and as such fightbrew recipes can determine the fate of nations. It’s a world where knowledge truly is power and the rise and fall of civilizations is measured in their ability to invent and produce the most powerful fightbrews.
Where did you get the idea for Brother Red, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this story?
In my first novel, Snakewood, there’s a moment where a character witnesses soldiers of The Post singing a hymn, “Brother Red,” to one of their fallen comrades. When it came to Orbit requesting two more stand-alone novels set in the same world, I was intrigued by what the origin to this hymn could be, and so Brother Red is set before Snakewood, tracing the story of the woman that the hymn became an ode to.
The core idea of her story didn’t change significantly from the moment I was ready to start chapter one, except that about hundred or so pages in, another woman gets off a horse and I suddenly realized Driwna was going to fall in love with her. This was awesome, but did require me to adapt the rest of the novel.
Brother Red is obviously a fantasy tale. But is there more to it? Is it epic fantasy, grimdark fantasy, or are there other genres that either describe it better or are at work in this story as well?
I’ve been tagged as a grimdark fantasy author, principally, I think, because of Snakewood‘s quite amoral protagonists and general cast, all being battered old mercenaries who spent their lives killing for a purse. There’s a term I think the author Ed McDonald came up with, “grimheart,” that I think covers both this book and The Winter Road rather better, i.e. that in a bleak and unforgiving world, you’re following a character attempting to retain a moral core which facilitates their ultimate success…well, “success” is a strong word for the conclusions to both novels, but there we are.
I did more research for the fight scenes, which may or may not show, insofar as they are less the Hollywood sabre dancing and more the reality of being over after one wrong move or misjudgment. Otherwise, there’s nothing specific. The inspiration I draw from fiction is mainly a fairly general appreciation of the choices authors make and their ability to write nuanced and multifaceted characters and relationships. I don’t limit myself to sci-fi and fantasy. In fact, it’s generally a small proportion of my overall reading. Margaret Atwood has been my drug of choice recently, along with factual books relating to research.
How about non-literary influences; was Brother Red influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I don’t recall any specific influence on Brother Red. Plenty for the next novel, though. The development and execution of Brother Red built on the world developed in the previous two novels, which had influences principally in the old Slaine stories from 2000AD and the stylistic influence of Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly as narrator in True History Of The Kelly Gang. I wanted to write a fantasy novel that had a bit more grit and realism to it than high fantasy, one that focused on people that weren’t destined to kill gods or bring down evil empires, just ordinary people going through hell while managing to retain a sense of loyalty, duty and love.
Prior to becoming a published writer, you were a producer on such video games as Burnout Paradise, Split/Second, and Black. How do you think your work on games influenced what you did in Brother Red, especially given that Burnout Paradise and Split/Second were racing games, and didn’t have stories, while Black did, but it was a modern military one, not a fantasy one?
There was no connection at all with the games themselves, hardly surprising, but I learned, and continue to experience as a game developer, the value of a team pursuing and improving an idea together. When it came to being edited and copy edited for the first time with Snakewood, experiences that pull no punches to say the least, my experience of creative directors nurturing and rolling in other ideas and feedback to the benefit of the concept made me way less afraid of creative and then editorial collaboration. In almost all cases the suggestions of my editors and copy editors have greatly improved my work.
As you said, Brother Red is set in the same fantasy realm as Snakewood and The Winter Road. Does this realm have a name?
The world is called Sarun. There’s some maps that give a flavor of it in the handy “Maps” section on my website. We didn’t manage to get a map into Brother Red, so I’d urge anyone picking up a copy of Brother Red to head there to orient themselves to where Farlsgrad and the Sathanti Peaks are, the two principle locations in this book.
And is your plan to keep doing this, to keep writing stand-alone fantasy stories set in Sarun and around this time?
I’m moving away from the world for the next story I want to tell. I do have a sequel to Snakewood in mind, I know there’s unfinished business there, but I’m very keen to tell the story of a girl from this world and her journey to becoming a god, so that’s next up and there’s a stack of work ahead of me before that sees any kind of sunlight.
Earlier I asked if Brother Red was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. Has there been any interest in turning Brother Red into a movie, show, or game?
Alas, no interest in my work yet from the TV or film companies. Like most other sci-fi / fantasy authors, I live in hope.
If someone did want to adapt these stories, what form do you think would work best?
I think my books would lend themselves to a single season TV show, being stand-alones. Two hours doesn’t feel quite enough to do the work, particularly given the world and the fightbrews and dynamics of all that needs to be introduced to fresh eyes, but I say that with zero screenwriting experience. Frankly, any chance of seeing my work on a screen, with all the obvious benefits that accrue, is a chance I’m not going to spurn lightly.
If someone wanted to adapt Brother Red into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I have no preference for particular actors, directors, or screenwriters. I’d just hope they were good at their craft. There’s something to be said for a story being easier to immerse yourself into if you don’t know the actors.
I’d also hate for it to have a crappy budget that forced compromises out of the production to its detriment.
And given your past employment history, I have to ask: What if someone wanted to make a game out of these novels?
I’ve actually sketched out something that looks a bit like a management sim for mercenary soldiers (doesn’t that sound exciting). The fightbrews break up your more experienced soldiers, (reducing their stats) so you’re constantly looking out for good young recruits to bolster your ranks as well as striking deals and exploring for better ingredients for your fightbrews etc. as you look to build the most legendary mercenary crew in the world. I’m sure a campaign could take in a nice story arc that guides the player around all the many parts of my world I haven’t yet been able to introduce but fill many pages of my One Note project.
If someone wanted to make that game, would you want the story to be straight adaptation of the books or would you want have a new story?
Definitely not based on these stories. I think their strength relies on them being narratives, i.e. that you immerse yourself in the persona and struggles of another and live through them. I think the fightbrews could bring some very cool and hyperreal visuals and concepts to the fight scenes/game mechanics. Imagine Arkham Asylum but Batman’s capabilities and perceptions are 10X. I think generally the borderline synesthetic and almost hallucinatory experience of taking a fightbrew would work well with any CGI or graphics with the capabilities we have now.
Would you want to work on that game?
Wouldn’t be a bad life, would it. I’ve spent my whole games career as a Producer, so I think that side of it appeals, I’d certainly be interested to see a creative team evolve something fresh from what I’ve done, so having an ear and an oar in there, but no more, would be divine.
Finally, if someone enjoys Brother Red, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one and not the other one?
I think they could be done in any order. There is a tidbit in the epilogue of Brother Red which is a minor spoiler for Snakewood, but you could go either way given the epilogue to Brother Red throws that tidbit forward, while earlier on in Brother Red the characters talk about the legendary Teyr Amondsen, protagonist of The Winter Road, so you could go back and discover the origin story for that legend too.