The former Editor of Games Workshop’s White Dwarf magazine, self-confessed Victoriana and history nerd Mark Latham took the leap to become a full-time author and games designer. The Lazarus Gate, his debut novel, was the first in his Victorian sci-fi Apollonian Case Files series, with the second, The Iscariot Sanction, released the following year.
This year, he’s had his first Sherlock Holmes novel published with the world’s greatest detective investigating Dracula, and the third Apollonian novel, The Legion Prophecy, is set to hit the shelves in September. He’s not been slacking, so we thought it was high time we popped the kettle on and invited him over for a natter…
What was it like moving from a secure job at Games Workshop to the unknown of being an author and freelance games designer?
It was terrifying because I’d worked there for fifteen years: my entire working life. I’d written The Lazarus Gate over about two and a half years, working on it in every lunch hour, every evening. They were having a huge restructure and I was considering whether I should stay or take the money and run. Then my agent called me out of the blue and said “I’ve sold your book to Titan.” That was my answer.
The Apollonian Case Files series is set in dual worlds with recurring characters. It’s a pretty solid universe, how long were you developing it before you put the proverbial pen to paper?
I had the idea percolating for maybe ten years or more, but I didn’t know which genre it’d be. I always start with the story; I didn’t quite have John Hardwick as a protagonist from the beginning, but I always knew what the big twist would be, so I had to create a character that was capable of it. It was only when I began writing it that I realised he was my guy.
As a reader it was quite a surprise with the second book, The Iscariot Sanction, to find the Hardwick family – the first book’s central characters – returning, but not quite as and where you’d expect them to be. What made you make that decision to retain the same characters but set it in an alternative world?
I got a three book deal on the strength of having a whole bunch of ideas for five or six books, not all of which are Hardwick family stories. I thought people would want to know more about them, so it made sense to do a duology first. I’d learned a lot of lessons from the first book and was very aware that I wanted to write in a different style; it’s a lot more action focused, lots of daring do. The Lazarus Gate is a first person narrative, while The Iscariot Sanction is a third person narrative with a really difficult protagonist: Lillian is really tough. All the elements for the third book, The Legion Prophecy, have been sown in the first two.
How does it feel writing about the Empire and times gone by? It’s obviously quite romanticised, especially considering how disjointed we are as a country now...
Stuff that’s going on in the world now very much impacted the third book. Although John Hardwick had a terrible time of it fighting in the Imperial wars and came back from Burma an opium addict, imperialism was romanticised in The Lazarus Gate and he still revered the crown, Queen and country, and doing the right thing for good old Blighty. I stuck with that because he wouldn’t make the decisions that he does if he wasn’t such a good soldier. There’s a little bit more cynicism in the second book because the world that those characters inhabit is completely mad, and the Empire’s crumbling anyway. In the third book, back in our world, there’s a bunch of different characters with different perspectives and I’ve tried to show the rot beneath the glamour.
Are there any Easter eggs in the series where you give a nod to people who were part of pop culture at that time?
Loads. If you research all the characters, and the places too, you’ll find some are real and some aren’t. The real ones – I hope – do fit into the general timeline and appear in places where they’re meant to be, doing what they’re meant to be doing. No one’s spotted it yet so I don’t know whether I should give it away, but John Hardwick’s address was carefully chosen. He’s kind of a John Watson/Sherlock Holmes mash-up character, so the address for his boarding house is the real-world address that is next door to 221b Baker Street as used in the BBC Sherlock series; next door to Speedy’s cafe. It’s exactly where he needs to be for the fashionable, not-quite-expensive area and near some nice back alleys for him to get mugged in along the way. I had to sneak a Sherlock reference in.
Where did the fascination with Victoriana start with you?
Weirdly, as a kid I was absolutely obsessed with Westerns and my first game was a Wild West game. Later I discovered Sherlock Holmes, and then Dracula and Wuthering Heights – either are my favourite novel, depending on what day you ask me – and then went onto Jules Verne. I read that sort of thing exclusively for years, especially during my degree. I was also running role-playing games set in Victorian times, and I’ve now got over 200 books, some antiquarian, all about Victorian history with maps of London, underground maps. I call it my Victorian Google. My wife calls it a huge mess of books.
Although The Apollonian Case Files series is sci-fi fantasy, there are other elements to it including a bit of horror. Do you think crossing genres opens your work up to new audiences?
I think I’m finding it harder to find my audience in some respects. Every genre comes with expectations, and even my editors have said, “Do you want to take this bit out, or change this bit, because an audience would expect the character to do these things instead.” That’s quite difficult, because I didn’t really think about genres when I wrote the first book, it was defined as Victorian sci-fi, the horror came later. The sci-fi writers of the twenties would never have thought that they were writing science fiction, they’d have just thought they were writing a book and it was just as worthy as Dickens writing a book.
People like neat little boxes. And especially with genres like sci-fi and horror, you’ll always get the purists…
I think the main thing is the audience expect happy endings. Thankfully Game of Thrones moved the bar and made audiences realise that people might actually just die, so they’ve started to like a bit more grit. That’s good, because I don’t write happy endings. My general rule is that your characters have to win but it always comes at a huge cost.
As a writer, if you’ve spent a long time establishing a character you must start falling in love with them, so to just bop them on the head, as it were…
I nearly killed John Hardwick a few times. Then I thought, no, I’ll just maim him, or kill his double instead. I do terrible things to him. I can’t kill him just yet, but his day may come.
If the series got made into a film, who would you have play the characters?
I’ve written a whole blog about this. John’s older, wiser, and more grizzled in the first book, and he’s almost a young Jack the Lad in the second. So in the first one I always imagine him as Johnny Lee Miller in Elementary: drug-addled, tattooed, taut and wiry, with a harried look about him. And, for all of them, Tuppence Middleton as Lillian. In the dream world, Patrick Stewart as Lazarus. That would be great. Alan Rickman would be the sinister Lord Sherlaton. I know he’s passed, but no one else can do it. They’ll have to resurrect him with CGI or something.
Do you usually have someone in mind as you’re writing?
Books aren’t written like movies, so if you try and write TV or movie prose then it always goes a bit pear-shaped. But I do tend to get key characters picked out from actors and I pin them to my wall. So when I’m working out how to develop a line of dialogue, I can look at it and think “What would Alan Rickman say?” If I can imagine the actor saying it, it can really help the dialogue. It sounds daft, but…
I guess when you start writing, the characters become more real, so to have a physical cue is helpful. Do you dream about your characters?
Occasionally. The pivotal horror scenes in each book come from nightmares I’ve had, and the whole story is based around them. So the scene when the Artist reveals his true nature and he chains John up to torture him, and there are fleshy, mutant creatures sloping around the room, that was actually a terrible nightmare I had when I was in my late teens. I wrote it down as a short-story sketch, always thinking I’d use it one day. The key vampire scene in the second book was kind of the same; that was hideous, and I woke up feeling like it was real.
You released a Sherlock Holmes book in the spring, Betrayal in Blood, how did that come about?
The Sherlock editor is now my main editor at Titan. She knew I could write Sherlock from some of my short stories, and asked me to write two books for them. The story came about from my academic studies where I looked at Dracula as if it was a collection of real accounts and documents, and considered how you could account for all the plot holes in it.
Upon picking it apart, I came up with this idea that the guys pursuing him are not actually innocent, because they do so many weird things they can only be the actions of criminals. Bringing that idea forward to now, you’d need a great detective to unravel the plot. They go public with the Dracula papers and announce to the world that they killed this terrible foreigner who’s come over here for our lovely, fair maidens with his foreign ways. Sherlock Holmes reads about it in the papers and says, “Poppycock! This Van Helsing’s a crook, and I’m going to prove it.”
Nice blending. That must be a bit of a dream, to marry two of your favourite characters in one book?
It was really difficult merging the two to form a coherent narrative. There are places where the style naturally goes into the Dracula style, with letters from the original characters and such. I’m trying to mirror the style of Bram Stoker’s writing, which doesn’t actually gel very well with the Sherlock Holmes style. Also, not showing all the research was a pain for me; I had to remember that it was a rip-roaring story and not a way to show my academic research.
Betrayal in Blood and your other, forthcoming Sherlock book are part of a larger series from a collection of authors...#
Interestingly, they’ve done a lot of fantastical ones and are now starting to ground them more in real history. They were quite eager for my Dracula one to be a ‘real’ Sherlock Holmes story as opposed to having vampires running around. It can be a little bit spooky and gothic, but not ghosts and ghouls. There’s the famous quote, “In all the time I’ve been investigating, there’s only been one real supernatural case, and that was the giant rat of Sumatra!” [sic]. So many writers have written the Giant Rat of Sumatra and it’s never been any good.
You… one day?
The Legion Prophecy will be released released in September with Titan Books.
Mark Latham blog