Welcome to the fourth installment of Author’s Own Words. In this installment, we are honored to feature Stephen Shrewsbury’s and Brian Keene’s King of the Bastards, including an interview with author Stephen Shrewsbury.
On a bleak coast far from his homeland, Rogan, barbarian king of Albion, finds himself surrounded by deadly threats and spectacular wonders. Tentacles rise from the sea, winged beasts cast their shadows from above, and hungry corpses emerge from dark tides. For warrior-king Rogan, survival depends on steel, speed, muscle, and cunning. Thus opens Stephen Shrewsbury’s and Brian Keene’s King of the Bastards. A thrill ride of a novel with constant action, King of the Bastards satisfies fantasy, horror, and science-fiction fans alike with its blend of sword and sorcery, supernatural terror, and slight dash of speculative technology.
At first, the novel’s narrative arc is a straight shot—shipwrecked King Rogan agrees to save a tribal village from an evil wizard that has fortified himself in a mountain redoubt. The wizard Amazarek has summoned an army of undead humans, crossbred beasts, and Croatoan, a.k.a. Meeble, and ancient demon-like being. In Shrewsbury’s mythos, Meeble is one of the terrifying and fabled “Thirteen”—a group of elder and vaguely extra-terrestrial entities whose sole purpose is to glutton themselves on the suffering that results from torturing humanity. With this striking cast of villains in place, and with Rogan’s believable (if somewhat sardonic) sympathy for the abused villagers binding them together, the novel’s main confrontation draws its raw and enticing tension.
If Lord of the Rings is a heavy-crossbow of a fantasy novel, King of the Bastards is a light yet swiftly firing recurve bow. It is every bit as accurate in piercing the reader’s heart while also nailing the bullseye of its unique stylistic place across genres. In King Rogan, Shrewsbury and Keene create a character who echoes Howard’s Conan, yet who possesses a broader sense of humor and is embroiled in a more textured and nuanced type of political intrigue.
As the novel progresses, the authors weave in their own brand of alternate history. Even as Rogan and his companions—nephew Javan, a pair of amazon-esque archers, and a good wizard from the village—fight their way to Amazarek’s fortress, the dark waters of Rogan’s personal history, the kingdom and family he left behind, begin to tie-in with his motives. These factors intensify as Rogan battles furry mutants, deals with infighting among the tribesmen, and even enjoys a rough yet tasteful erotic scene. All of these elements mix well with the greater story of King Rogan’s life and fate of his kingdom.
When the climactic battle with Amazarek and Meeble arrives, the reader holds a strong stake in what success or failure means not just for Rogan himself, but for his family and dynasty. The climactic battle (without inserting a spoiler) is also where the speculative-technology aspect of the narrative comes into play and does so with the same ease and wonder with which the political-intrigue portion was introduced.
A unique gem in the vast trove of stories with epic heroes, King of the Bastards makes a strong claim to being a true classic. For all who enjoy musing on the various ways in which genre fiction can be served, this innovative novel provides food for thought that is both rare and bloody and offers an action-packed thrill ride into the bargain.
Where did you first get the inspiration for writing a cross-genre novel?
SS: I never put on a cap and say THIS IS HIGH FANTASY but tell a story. The way I write comes out rough & brutal, be it a horror, romance or western. If anything, life is brutal and I try to be as close to real as possible. I don’t go out of my way to get my jollies being extreme… though some may think so. Life can be horrific and that is reflected in these tales.
Aspects of Rogan’s personality clearly echo Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and yet King Rogan has a certain rugged yet playful sense of humor that is quite original. What gave rise to this and other elements of his character?
SS: Well, I’d have to guess the dark humor that resides in Keene & myself. I think it’s good to temper such tales filled with action & gore with some humor… but I really don’t ever say I NEED A JOKE HERE. It just happens. A bit of us bleeds into Rogan. Plus, once the chains are off and a character has a broken moral compass, things roll.
While certainly a full-length novel, King of the Bastards is on the lean side for a story with strong fantasy elements. Yet it carries a great deal of depth when it comes to the characters and world building. Was rapid-world building something you thought about while writing the book, or did it come about naturally?
SS: World building is an interesting term. I hear it a great deal. Not a once in any book I do am I so worried about a map or the world that I let the story or characters suffer. I’ve seen folks labor over creating a fantasy realm or world and never start a yarn. I laugh at how folks are SO obsessed with setting such places on other worlds. HEY it’s the freaking EARTH in a different era. Jeez. I set this and my Gorias novels before the flood, in a long forgotten epoch where everything was possible. Certain weapons and metals were invented and lost in that epic apocalypse. Demons walk the earth. Angels too. The rules are fluid. But yeah, the story is pretty simple in KING. A forthcoming Rogan novel is very complex, though.
King of the Bastards is a co-written novel. What was that process like?
SS: Fairly straightforward. We kicked around ideas and lots, what we both wanted in such a work and I slammed out portions. We swapped things back & forth. Pretty fun really.
What makes the barbarian character so much fun, as opposed to say, knights in capes and shining armor?
SS: As I said above, Rogan has some sense of personal honor, but he’s raw, rough and has lived a long time. He will say & do anything to survive and gives all he has in a battle. At times, prolly cruel, but gritty and real.
This series features books both old and new, and King of the Bastards, while a fantastic read, certainly isn’t your latest work. Would you like to tell us about any particular upcoming releases?
SS: The sequel THRONE OF THE BASTARDS is out from Apex. My horror westerns featuring my one-armed ex-rebel Joel Stuart are out from Necro Publications; MOJO HAND, LAST MAN SCREAMING and BAD MAGICK. BEYOND NIGHT (written with Eric S. Brown) is a brutal fantasy about the Lost Legion out from Crystal Lake. Rumor is there is a third Rogan novel bleeding into existence. One never knows what else I’m working on.
Author’s Own Words thanks Steven L. Shrewsbury for taking the time for this interview. We wish to add here that King of the Bastards co-author Brian Keene has been badly burned in an accident. A GoFundMe page has been created to help with his medical expenses. Please use the following link if you would like to donate: https://www.gofundme.com/brian-keene-burn-fund
Steven L. Shrewsbury writes in the realms of horror and sword & sorcery. His novels include Within, Philistine, Overkill, Hell Billy, Blood & Steel, Thrall, Stronger than Death, Hawg, Thoroughbred, Tormentor, Godforsaken, and the just released Born of Swords.
Brian Keene is the Bram Stoker and Grand Master award-winning, bestselling author of over forty books, including Darkness on the Edge of Town, Take the Long Way Home, Urban Gothic, Castaways, Kill Whitey, Dark Hollow, Dead Sea, and The Rising trilogy.
Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, published by Seventh Star Press.