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Fantasy author Myke Cole on grounding a medieval world with demons in it

Fantasy author Myke Cole on grounding a medieval world with demons in it

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Artwork: Tommy Arnold /

Myke Cole is best known for his urban fantasy Shadow Ops series, which focuses heavily on portraying a world much like ours that is suddenly infused with magic. Cole’s hallmark in the fantasy world has been the incredible level of realism that he approaches his books with. This is especially true when it comes to his portrayals of the military, which draws on his own time serving in the armed forces.

For his next act, Cole is changing things up a bit. His upcoming series, The Sacred Throne, exchanges the modern-day world that he’s been using as a setting for a more traditional fantasy realm. The Sacred Throne series is very much a modern-day fantasy thematically, but more on the “grimdark” side of the genre in the vein of authors like Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, or George R.R. Martin than the more optimistic worlds of Tolkien or Lewis.

Artwork: Tommy Arnold /

The Armored Saint is the first book in The Sacred Throne series, due out next February. It introduces Heloise, a 16-year-old girl who finds herself clashing with the Order, a religious group that violently puts down any magic users. This is for a good reason, given that any use of magic could open a portal to hell and unleash demons on the world.

The new series is set to be published through the imprint of Tor Books, which came onto the scene three years ago and has already established itself firmly in the industry with its emphasis on novellas and shorter pieces of fiction.

We recently had the chance to chat a bit with Cole about his upcoming book seres, and we have an exclusive look at the cover for the first book in the series, The Armored Saint (artwork by Tommy Arnold.)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell us a little about The Armored Saint?

The Armored Saint is dark medieval. It's very, very bleak. It's about a young girl who lives under the thumb of an oppressive order that has reasons to want to deny the use of magic. They see it as very dangerous, as a real existential threat to all humanity, and they crack down on it brutally. They will burn your house down, burn your village down, kill everyone you know, sow the ground with salt. Whatever they need to do to make sure that taint, that blight, that potential for infection is eradicated. And, of course, that's an oppressive and hard way to live. And this girl finds herself thrust into a leadership role in opposing it. But just because the order is draconian, this order that's forcing the prohibition of magic, doesn't mean they're wrong. And so it's a very interesting intersection of those two things.

It's inspired by the tone of books by authors like Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, Peter V. Brett, and to some extent, George R.R. Martin. I really, really like how fantasy these days is tackling the awfulness of the world in very stark terms, unlike, say, Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, whose greatest character flaw’s being excessively earnest. But I also am careful not to make it so bleak. It's not The Road, if you've ever read Cormac McCarthy, where you want to go outside and kill yourself at the end of it.

I definitely want to have a glimmer of hope. I guess the tone I want to strike with it is that life is awful, and I'm not going to shy away from that. But there are ways that we can make it less awful or there are ways that we can find meaning in the awfulness, that we can plant flowers [in] the ashes, so to speak. So I'm really excited to have a chance to do it.

Why the change from the more urban fantasy setting from your Shadow Ops series to something closer to traditional swords and sorcery?

This book is super important me. So the Shadow Ops series, when it sold and when it got praised, it was always the authentic military voice. I think I might have been the only currently serving military member writing. At the time I was still on duty to the Coast Guard when that book came out. There's a lot of retired military guys writing, but I don't know anyone who is actually active and writing, which is what I was doing. So I kept getting praise for my "authentic military voice." I was just kind of like, "Okay, I'm glad that people like this, and I'm definitely happy if it sells books," but the truth is that you start to think "Well, is this a gimmick?" Do people like my writing because I'm a good writer, or do people like my writing because it's authentic and it's a military voice? And of course that set me up for kind of growing insecurity, and so it became very important to me to prove to myself that I was a writer with a capital W. That I can do other things.

How do you go about the challenge of grounding things now that you’re writing in a much more fantastical setting than your earlier books?

So, when I'm looking at a medieval setting, instead of extrapolating from the modern experience I've had in the military, I now have to extrapolate from what I know about the medieval world in which my book is set. In my case I took Merovingian, I'll call it France — back then there was no France but I'll say Merovingian France — around the time before Charlemagne. And it was on me to understand how people back then lived and talked and ate and dressed. I'm very, very blessed, or lucky I guess, that I have a background in history in college and particularly in medieval and ancient history. So I had an advantage, in that I already had a lot of source background, and most importantly I understood how to go about history. Studying history is in and of itself a skill. You have to understand how to use [the] material record, how you use primary sources, what periodicals you need to be looking at to draw an accurate picture.

Therefore, I feel pretty confident that the world I've generated in The Armored Saint is going to extrapolate pretty realistically to the reader. If I've done my job right — and I hope I have — you're going to believe it. You're going to feel like this feels real.

Is there a reason you can speak to for why a “grimdark” take on fantasy is resonating with with authors and readers today?

I think it's pretty obvious: I think that we live in hard times, man. Ever since 9/11. I don't know about you, but I feel like world's kind of gone south. I feel like we're living through a very, very dark period in human history — certainly the darkest that I've experienced. It may be that history looks on that feeling as a lot of hyperbole and maybe histrionics, but I do feel like there was a sea change in the world in 9/11, and I also feel like people of my generation all feel that way, because it was almost like the world was one way and now its another.

When I read a character like Frodo Baggins, I just can't get lost in that chapter, or love that character or believe in that character, because what's Frodo's biggest flaw? Like excessive earnestness. That's just not how people are. And I think that you see this in the ‘80s, there was always a hunger for that realism. The Dark Knight [Returns] changed the conversation in comics right? I don't know if you're a comics fan. But like, comics were one way and then The Dark Knight Returns came out and then they were not anymore. They changed.

And I feel like fantasy literature had a bit of a trailing edge until post-9/11 and we finally found a voice in in that. George R.R. Martin kills Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, and everyone is like "Holy shit! This is different. Something is changed.”

Post-9/11, I think the world is a lot darker. The one thing I will say though is, I don't know how much Abercrombie you've read, and Abercrombie is one of my favorite audiences, but like The Road, when I finish an Abercrombie book I have to go lie down for a week. So I really do want to tune that a tiny, tiny bit because you know despair is kind of hard to deal with all the time and I would like to just tweak it a bit, and that's what I'm hoping to do here.

The Armored Saint comes out on February 20th, 2018. Two sequels, The Queen of Crows and The Killing Light, are set to follow.