With The Shadow Commission (paperback, Kindle), writer David Mack is (probably) concluding the Dark Arts series of secret history fantasy novels he began in 2018 with The Midnight Front and continued a year later with The Iron Codex. In the following email interview, he discusses what inspired and influenced this third installment, while also discussing his new-ish Star Trek novel, More Beautiful Than Death (paperback, Kindle, audiobook).
Photo Credit: Dave Cross
For people who haven’t read any of these books, what is the Dark Arts series about, and in what kind of world do they take place?
Dark Arts is a secret-history dark fantasy series set against the international geopolitics of the mid- to late-twentieth century. It follows the adventures of Cade Martin and Anja Kernova, while also delving into the lives and struggles of other karcists (i.e., sorcerers) whose paths intersect with theirs. Its system of magic is based on the rituals of ceremonial black magic as practiced during the Renaissance, with one or two major adjustments to make it more “cinematic.”
Unlike alternate-history fiction, secret histories strive to set their narratives in the world and history we assume to be real. For instance, book one of the series, The Midnight Front, takes place in and around the events of World War II in Europe. Rather than change the outcome of events such as battles, I incorporate their real outcomes into the story, and show how my characters influenced those outcomes, or were affected by them, or both.
Book II, The Iron Codex, is a black-magic-fueled spy thriller set in February and March of 1954, during the early days of the Cold War, and it revolves around a plot to sabotage the Castle Bravo nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, the highest-yield nuclear device ever detonated by the United States.
And then for people who have read the other Dark Arts novels, what is The Shadow Commission about, and how does it connect, both chronologically and narratively, to the previous book, The Iron Codex?
The Shadow Commission is a paranoid conspiracy thriller in the style of [the 1975 movie] Three Days Of The Condor. Most of it takes place in November 1963, in the week following the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. After an enchanted bullet is used to kill Kennedy, our heroes and other magicians around the world — many of whom have been living in seclusion — discover that they, too, have been targeted for assassination by a sinister international cabal known only as The Shadow Commission. For our main characters — Cade, Anja, and Briet — this story is about how our pasts inevitably catch up to us.
When in relation to writing The Midnight Front and / or The Iron Codex did you come up with the idea for The Shadow Commission, and did you change anything in the story between then and when you finished writing it?
Since very early in the development of the series, well before I had finished writing The Midnight Front, I had known that the third book would be set in 1963 and be strongly connected to the Kennedy assassination. It wasn’t until I was plotting The Iron Codex, whose ending needed to set the stage for book three, that I had to make a firm decision concerning the nature of the Shadow Commission itself as an antagonist.
The biggest change that I made to The Shadow Commission occurred after I had finished writing its first draft. Though the book had been accepted by the publisher, my agent and my beta readers had some insightful notes concerning key elements of the story. As I considered how I might put their feedback to use, I realized that the only way to do so effectively would require me to throw out the entire second half of the manuscript, start over from a crucial moment near the mid-point, re-plot the story from there, write a new outline, and then write the second half of the book again from scratch. And that’s exactly what I did, in the space of just under five weeks.
My editor and publisher graciously allowed me those five weeks to rewrite the story into one that I felt lived up to my standards, but the consequence of that delay in delivery of the manuscript was a postponement of its publication by five months, to June 2020. Then, because of various issues caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, its publication date was postponed again, to August 2020.
As you said earlier, the Dark Arts novels are secret-history dark fantasy tales, and The Shadow Commission is also a paranoid conspiracy thriller. Are there any other genres at work in this story as well?
The Shadow Commission is definitely a thriller, with plenty of action and big magic-battle set pieces, as my readers have come to expect. But in terms of its tone and genre style, it was intended to be more of a paranoid thriller, a suspenseful mystery as our principal characters are besieged and then hunted by an enemy whose names and agenda they don’t know. If the series’ first book, The Midnight Front, was like Captain America: The First Avenger, then The Shadow Commission is like Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that were a big influence on The Shadow Commission, but not on The Midnight Front or The Iron Codex?
What about movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big influence on The Shadow Commission?
The biggest inspiration, which I mentioned earlier, was Three Days Of The Condor. And I’d have to say there was likely some residual inspiration from the film version of The Bourne Ultimatum, which was based on the spy-thriller novel by Robert Ludlum.
As you said, The Shadow Commission involves a cabal called, well, the Shadow Commission. In figuring out the Shadow Commission’s tactics and practices, did you research any real-life or rumored secret groups, or did you base it more on fictional ones?
Given the antiquity of the cabal’s origins, I modeled them after the robber barons of America’s 19th century, and then married to that the notion that each member of the five-man cabal keeps a sextet of karcists on retainer. These payrolled sorcerers bestow upon their patrons powerful sigils of defense, as well as the boons of extended life and resistance to illness and poisons.
In a sense, I wanted the Shadow Commission to serve as an allegory for the ruling elite and concentrated wealth inequality that define 20th- and 21st-century capitalism.
The real-life group that most directly influenced my depiction of the Shadow Commission was the annual summit of the richest, most powerful, and generally right-wing people in the world: the two-week-long gathering that happens every July in Bohemian Grove, near Russian River Valley, California. Many conspiracy theories surround Bohemian Grove and its hyper-exclusive list of male-only members and guests. Some people have noted curious similarities between their kickoff ritual, known as “The Cremation Of Care,” with certain rituals in ceremonial magic, and the similarity of the grove’s most prominent statue to the demon Moloch. Most of this is coincidence.
For my book, however, I added fictionalized elements of magical defense to the Bohemian Grove setting, and I used it as a setting for a scene near the book’s conclusion because it felt like a good fit for the members of the cabal.
Now, in the previous interview we did about The Midnight Front [which you can read by clicking here], you said your deal with Tor was for three books. Does that mean that The Shadow Commission is the end of the Dark Arts series?
For now, yes. I wrote it knowing that it would likely be the end, at least for the time being. Consequently, I pulled no punches and had no qualms about overturning its status quo. It would be fair to say that all the characters who survive this story come out permanently changed by its end — and not always for the better. If this has to be the end, I think it will work in that capacity. But, if fortune should make it possible someday for me to return to this series, I’ve left myself with possibilities to explore.
So, if you’re not doing a fourth book in this series, what are you doing? Besides staying home and safe and at least six feet away from everyone else, of course.
I’ve been keeping busy working as a consultant for two upcoming Star Trek animated television series. The first, Star Trek: Lower Decks, will likely premiere some time in 2020. The latter, Star Trek: Prodigy, will debut sometime in 2021.
I’m also presently working on two as-yet-unannounced projects with different New York-based publishers, and I’m developing a new original novel that I hope to have ready for my agent to shop around this fall.
Speaking of Star Trek, you also have a Trek novel coming out the same day as The Shadow Commission, More Beautiful Than Death. What is that book about, and which Star Trek movies or shows is it connected to?
It’s a classic Star Trek formula: a crisis on the ship coincides with a problem on a planet. But it gets weird from there.
It’s based on the ship and characters from the recent feature-film versions of the franchise, and its story and situations are solidly grounded in that continuity. The result is a story that could not be told about the Original Series versions of these characters; this is a bespoke narrative, tailored to fit the new incarnations of Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and their shipmates and universe.
Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death is, of course, not your first Star Trek novel, but it is the first you’ve written that’s connected to what’s called the Kelvin Timeline. How, if at all, did that impact the story or the writing of it?
The biggest challenge was making sure that this novel captured the voices and personalities of the characters as they exist in the new cinematic universe, not those of the Original Series cast. There is also a more action-oriented drive to the story, one that I hope will make it feel familiar to fans of the new films. In order to help keep myself in the correct mindspace while writing it, I listened to the new Star Trek film scores by Michael Giacchino while I was writing, so that my imagination would remain rooted in that universe’s tempo and idioms.
Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death was originally supposed to come out in 2010, not long after the first Star Trek movie. If you don’t mind me asking, why was this book delayed?
Back in 2010, the publisher’s contract said they were good to go with publishing tie-ins based on the new cinematic version of Star Trek. However, the creative team at Bad Robot [who produced those movies] and the executives at CBS / Viacom and Paramount wanted more rigorous coordination of the tie-ins for the new movies, and to reserve as many narrative possibilities as they could for the films’ writers. Out of respect for those imperatives, the publisher indefinitely postponed the publication of four novels it had commissioned based on the new film…and one of those four novels was mine.
I was disappointed by the news, of course, but I and the other writers all were paid in full for our work, so it wasn’t a total disaster for us.
Well, that’s good. So when they decided to finally put out Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death, did you have to rewrite any of it given that, since you wrote it, there’s been two more movies: 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness and 2016’s Star Trek Beyond?
The changes that those two films necessitated in the manuscript for More Beautiful Than Death were quite minimal. There really was only one contradiction I had to resolve, one caused by a single line of dialogue in Star Trek Into Darkness. It required a few tweaks to action scenes throughout the book, but nothing that involved any substantive changes to my plot or characters.
Most of the changes that I made while polishing its manuscript last year were motivated by my desire to improve the flow of the prose, based on things I’ve learned about my craft in the decade or so since I first wrote that book.
Going back to The Shadow Commission, earlier I asked if it had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in turning the Dark Arts series into some movies, a TV show, or a video game?
To the best of my knowledge, no one has approached me or my agents with regard to adapting the Dark Arts series into any other medium. I don’t know why. My film agent tells me that supernatural thriller mixed with period drama is a hard sell. Maybe he’s right. (And yet, Penny Dreadful seems to have done well enough for Showtime that it’s producing a sequel series.)
As has the second season of The Umbrella Academy, which is set around the time of the Kennedy assassination.
If a producer were looking to adapt Dark Arts, I’d tell them it’s been tailored since its conception to adapt well to a premium-television format, such as one would find on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, etc.
Because of the manner in which the series’ magic system was created, Dark Arts would also work well as the basis for a tabletop role-playing game. If anyone’s interested in any of these possibilities, my agents’ contact information is posted prominently on my website.
If the Dark Arts series was going to be adapted into a premium streaming TV series, who would you want them to cast as the main characters, and why them?
We’ve covered this before, in our previous two Q&As about Dark Arts [which you can read by clicking here and here]. My answers remain pretty much the same, with regard to most of the principal characters.
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; [Spider-man: Far From Home‘s] Tom Holland has the right everyman quality to portray Cade Martin; Karen Gillan [Guardians Of The Galaxy] could embody the inner conflicts of Briet Segfrunsdóttir; [X-Men: First Class‘s] Michael Fassbender has the slick evil smile of Kein Engel; and Tommy Flanagan [Sons Of Anarchy] would be a sublime choice for Scottish vulgarian and master karcist Adair MacRae.
The Iron Codex features a few new faces. For the role of wise man Khalîl el-Sahir, I’d like to see [The Mummy‘s] Oded Fehr, 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].
One new face in need of potent casting in The Shadow Commission would be that of The Old Man, a member of the Shadow Commission. I think that, these days, former James Bond actor Timothy Dalton has the gravitas and the voice to embody The Old Man.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Shadow Commission, and they’ve already read The Midnight Front and The Iron Codex, what similar historical / military fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that?
There are so many good options, it’s hard to know where to start.
Check out any of Tom Doyle’s alternate-history American Craftsmen series, for a look at another way magic could have shaped American history and culture. Buy Ian Tregillis’ visionary Milkweed Tryptich, which fuses magic and super-science and parallel worlds with stunning mastery. And for a high-velocity mix of politics, sorcery, and alternate history, pick up the Cold War-era thriller Breach by W. L. Goodwater.
And though they aren’t alternate or secret history, I have to recommend that everyone get all of the Sandman Slim novels by Richard Kadrey, so that they can revel in his stories’ profane genius, riveting action, and sheer awesomeness, and try out R. S. Belcher’s novels The Night Dahlia and The Brotherhood Of The Wheel and his Golgotha series of weird-Western novels, all of which are paid homage within my Dark Arts novels.