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Tim Lebbon

GUEST POST: World Building in the RELICS Universe by Tim Lebbon

TimLebbon Name: TIM LEBBON

Author of: COLDBROOK (2012)
                      THE HUNT (2015)
                      RELICS (2017)

On the web: www.timlebbon.net

On Twitter: @timlebbon

I love world building. A few years ago I wrote a series of fantasy novels for Bantam in the USA, and also a couple for Orbit in the UK. Four of these––the Noreela novels––all took place in the same alternate world, and so the world I created grew and expanded with each novel, histories filling out, landscapes becoming more real, religions and politics more complex. When I then wrote two standalone fantasy novels (Echo City and The Heretic Land) I was faced once again with creating whole new worlds with magical systems, politics, backgrounds … and it got a bit exhausting.

Deals came and went, my interests shifted, and most of my recent work has been set in our world. But that doesn’t mean that the world building is any less important. Easier? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Relics is set in contemporary London. Instantly the reader knows the setting, might very well have been there, and so the solid foundation of my world is set. Unlike my alternate world fantasy novels I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up (and down).

But in reality every fantastical novel or story––Earthbound or not––is set in an alternate world.

Check out The Walking Dead. It’s set in a world where zombies don’t exist … in folklore or fiction. No one in that show uses the word ‘zombie’, so it’s based in a world a few stops around the multiverse wheel from our own.

Relics-Blog-Tour-BannerSo the London of Relics isn’t quite the London we all know, and building that world was a lot of fun. The human part of the Relics London is pretty much as we know it. It’s the world of the Kin––those mythological creatures that used to exist many years ago during The Time––that I have to introduce, carefully constructing a system that allows them to exist within and beneath the human world of London that most readers will recognise.

They needed somewhere to exist. Let’s face it, if you see a satyr on the 14:22 from Paddington, you’d probably remember. Or would you? London’s a wild, wacky place, and as in any big city like this, eyes rarely meet, conversation with strangers is rarely entered into. By their very nature the Kin are covert, so their homes are either underground or hidden away in plain sight. They have a system of communications and warnings in case they’re spotted.

More than the here and now, the Kin needed a history and a wider mythology. For me this is the most effective part of world building––not the obvious, overt facets of a new world, but the hidden things only hinted at. The wider world, one that we don’t perhaps touch or use that much, but whose existence gives our story a much more rounded, realistic feel.

One of my favourite recent movies for world building is John Wick (and its brilliant sequel). It’s ultra-real, a contemporary story with a clever, whole new world interwoven into and through our own. What makes it so effective is the hints at a wider, deeper history, some of which we see a little of, most of which is implied or mentioned in a line or two. The sense of wide and deep history in those movies is exquisite, and that’s the effect I was aiming for with Relics.

This is our world. But it’s one in which a fallen angel can live in the tower block next door.

RELICS by Tim Lebbon

Relics RELICS

Tim  Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

Angela Gough’s life is happy and normal until the day her boyfriend, Vince, leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Mysterious notes through the door, which may be in his handwriting tell her to stay away, not to look for him, but Angela isn’t about to let him disappear out of her life without so much as an explanation. As she digs, she finds that her boyfriend is not the man she thought he was. He works for one of London’s biggest crime bosses and seems to have a secret life outside the one he shares with Angela. As she finds herself digging into the dangerous black market for ancient relics, pieces of creatures that should never have existed outside the pages of myth and legend, she soon discovers that there is more to London than the domain of humankind.

Relics is the start of a new urban fantasy series from genre legend Tim Lebbon. It’s a familiar plot – partners keeping secrets from each other, until one discovers that the other works for a criminal overlord, or is a Russian sleeper agent, or whatever the twist happens to be. In this instance it’s the gangster, but Lebbon twists slightly further, adding a dash of the supernatural to what might otherwise be described as gritty Britcrime. All of the ingredients are here: the man with a deep secret; the mob boss that he works for, and the rival mob boss who wants his special skills. It all sounds like your run of the mill London noir, until you factor in what exactly Vince does for Fat Frederick Meloy: he’s a relic hunter, a man with a special talent for finding old, rare artefacts, things which should not exist, and for which rich people will pay a fortune in order to add it to their collection.

At the centre of the story is Angela, a Bostonian living and studying in London. She shares a compact flat with her boyfriend Vince, and life is good, at least until Vince disappears and her world begins to fall apart. What makes Angela’s persistence and temerity believable is the fact that her study is focused on gangs and gang warfare. It also gives Lebbon the chance to give us some background on the darker figures – Meloy and Mary Rock – in a natural fashion, without the need for pages of backstory and exposition. While Angela is the central character, the story is told from the points of view of several other characters as well – Vince himself takes centre stage for much of the book; and Lilou, a nymph whose life Vince saved, gives us some insight into the state of mind of London’s lesser-known inhabitants, a group of so-called mythical creatures who call themselves collectively, the Kin.

Surprisingly, one of the book’s most engaging characters is gangster Fat Frederick Meloy, a man whose nickname no longer fits the bill. When we first encounter Meloy in the narrative, he comes across as a stereotypical London gangster. Lebbon, however, builds him into a larger-than-life character who, for many of the scenes where he is present, steals the show. A collector of the ancient relics himself, we see many sides of this complex man, despite the reputation that has grown up around him: at once the childlike glee whilst in the presence of his collection and the barely-contained violence that simmers beneath the surface. Meloy’s opposite number, Mary Rock, is a much more sinister character and we soon discover that she is not content to deal in ancient relics; she has discovered that the Kin still exist, and has developed a thirst – and a client-base – for something a little more fresh, something harvested from the fresh corpse of an angel, or a nymph, or a satyr.

Despite the supernatural elements, Relics does still feel like something of a contemporary crime novel. The London of Relics is, for the most part, the London of our own world, though Lebbon does explore a lesser-known face of the city, presenting a side of it that might fit well with the location of Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Mieville’s King Rat. Yes, there are creatures here that shouldn’t exist, but the story feels grounded in the real world through the evocation of London, and the realistic, empathetic characters that populate it.

Tim Lebbon is the quintessential genre author (which genre? All of them!) and Relics is the latest in a long line of unmissable books. Darkly thrilling, with more than a dash of black humour, it’s a novel that could easily be devoured in a single sitting, and is probably best enjoyed in this way. An excellent start to a promising new series, this is Lebbon at the top of his game.

GUEST POST: Thriller vs Horror by TIM LEBBON

Hunt Front Cover hi-res NEW Name: TIM LEBBON (writing as T.J. Lebbon)

Author of: WHITE (1999)
                 BERSERK (2006)
                 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
                 COLDBROOK (2012)
                 THE HUNT (2015)

On the web: www.timlebbon.net

On Twitter: @timlebbon

Tim Lebbon, best known for his horror novels, is releasing his first thriller (under the name T.J. Lebbon) on 16th July. It’s a fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat beauty, and I will be reviewing it here on Reader Dad next week. For now, I’m very pleased – not to mention excited – to welcome Tim to the blog, to talk about the differences between writing in the two genres.

They say you should write about what you know. That’s interesting advice when you’re a horror and dark fantasy writer. I’ve never met zombies and have never seen a ghost, but the advice is not literal. I know about fear and loss, love and grief, and it’s this aspect of what you know that you try to inject into a story to bring it to life.

If you have seen a ghost, all the better.

Until I wrote The Hunt, everything I ever wrote had some element of the supernatural or fantastic about it. This includes over thirty novels (seven in collaboration with Christopher Golden), over twenty novellas, and hundreds of shorts stories, as well as several screenplays. I’ve often been asked why I write horror, and my answers vary quite a bit. Mostly, I just say that it’s the way my parents put my hat on. I don’t like to analyse why I write what I do, in the same why I don’t think too much about why I prefer red wine over white, rock and punk instead of pop, or red meat instead of fish. It’s a matter of taste, and taste is part of what makes us unique.

And then I wrote a thriller.

I’ve been wanting to write a thriller for some time. Part of it was wanting to stretch my writer’s wings a little and see if I could write something that has no supernatural elements. I’ve stopped and started a few thrillers over the years, and one or two of these have changed into horror or even fantasy novels. But with The Hunt I knew what it was right from the beginning.

And it really was writing about what I knew.

I got into endurance sports a little over four years ago. I went from a standing start––overweight and unfit, I found a sport I loved, and it really changed my life. I’ve written elsewhere about the process, what I went through, and how it all happened. Suffice to say, a little over two years after starting to exercise seriously (at the age of 41) I raced my first Ironman. That’s a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon, all in under seventeen hours.

I started to learn about effort and pain, the physiology of exercise, the feeling of being up in the hills tired and thirsty and hurting, and still have a few miles to go until home. I loved it. I enjoyed being alone, and discovering a sport which is all about yourself, not teammates.

Being a writer, I knew that I’d write about this one day.

The Hunt is the result, a novel written with no contract in place, and definitely one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had.

So what was the difference between writing The Hunt and any of the horror/fantasy novels I’ve written? In truth, very little difference. The process was the same, and perhaps the greatest change was the amount of research involved in this book over others.

Firstly, I wanted to really use my new experiences as an endurance sports competitor. That was writing about what I knew (or what I was still learning a lot about, at least). Secondly, I had to get the landscape right. Set in the mountains of Wales, I needed to know the nature of the hills and valleys, their ruggedness and beauty, the weather, flora and fauna. Whereas in my fantasy novels I’d been able to make this all up (the sentient tumbleweed in Dusk being a particular favourite), in The Hunt I had to get it right. Although I did take geographical liberties, I like to think I got the feel of the mountains and wilderness just right.

I also had to research trophy hunting. That wasn’t very nice, and perhaps that’s the closest I got to horror with this novel.

Other aspects of writing remained the same. My characters were still thrust into shocking and dangerous situations, the only difference being that the main threat was from other people, not something supernatural (and aren’t we the scariest monsters anyway?).

I suppose the biggest difference about writing The Hunt has been since I’ve actually finished the writing process. After selling it to the very wonderful Avon, I soon came to realise that here I was, over thirty novels into my career, and now I was a debut novelist again! It was a strange feeling, but a strangely liberating one, too. I’m sure a few people will see through the cunning pseudonym of T. J. Lebbon, but working with Avon and their splendid PR company The Light Brigade has been a unique experience for me. I have features and interviews upcoming in the national press, and next week when the paperback is released I’ll see it on supermarket shelves. These are both new experiences for me.

As a debut novelist, these are exciting times!

COLDBROOK by Tim Lebbon

coldbrook - Tim Lebbon COLDBROOK

Tim Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)

Hammer (hammerfilms.com) / Arrow (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/arrow)

£6.99

Far underground, deep in a remote area of the Appalachian Mountains, lies the Coldbrook facility where, for ten years, Jonah Jones and his team have been trying to open a doorway to a parallel Earth. Three weeks ago, they succeeded and have been watching “the breach” ever since, gathering samples and preparing for the inevitable moment when a chosen few will cross over to see what lies beyond. Before that can happen, something comes through from the other side; something that may once have been human. Unaffected by the electrical field designed to kill anything that comes through, the creature grabs hold of the nearest scientist and bites. Holly Wright, thinking fast, sends the facility into lockdown, but it is already too late. The creature from the other side is carrying a virus and has already begun to spread it. When one of the scientists breaches lockdown and makes it to the surface, he inadvertently unleashes apocalypse upon the world, as the disease spreads like wildfire. But there is hope: a girl, bitten but unaffected, may hold a formula for the survival of the human race in her blood. They just need to get her back to Coldbrook in one piece.

I first discovered Tim Lebbon around a decade ago when someone recommended that I read his collection White, And Other Tales of Ruin. I was immediately hooked, so it was with no small measure of excitement that I cracked open Coldbrook, Lebbon’s take on the zombie novel. From the outset, it’s easy to tell this is something different: there’s a reasonable explanation for the outbreak, and a plausible explanation for the rapid spread of the disease: these zombies aren’t the traditional variety, chasing braaaaaiiiiins for their tea; they are people infected with a deadly and aggressive virus whose one goal it forces them to pursue with single-minded intensity: to spread itself. They are fast and, perhaps most frightening of all, they are patient, prepared to wait quietly outside your door until you believe the danger has passed, or have no other option but to step outside.

In amongst all the fun horror and buckets of blood, Lebbon takes time to examine how individuals might react in the face of oncoming doom. Family plays an important part in the story, and it is through this lens that Lebbon contrasts the stories of Vic Pearson – who risks everything to get his family as far away from Coldbrook as he can – and Sean Nott – no less dedicated a father, but whose daughter is in France, unreachable, her fate a mystery. Here, too, a look at community, as the initial sense of “every man for himself” gives way to a concerted effort to reach safety in a larger group. Inside Coldbrook, Jonah and Holly find themselves facing a different set of trials, as we discover what lies on the other side of the breach, and the shadowy Inquisitor begins to shadow Jonah’s every move.

What came as a pleasant surprise as I read Coldbrook was the unsettling sense of fear that it manages to instil in the reader. This is, after all, “only” a zombie novel, and we hardened veterans of the horror genre should have seen it all before. But Lebbon has more than a few surprises up his sleeve and, despite borrowing from a handful of the genre’s classics – the most obvious echoes here are of The Andromeda Strain and The Stand – still manages to produce something original and scary. Lebbon sets out his stall early in the novel as he presents the moment of outbreak from the point of view of Jonah. What makes this interesting is that Jonah is not in the room with the zombie, and is listening to the events on the phone. Because he can’t see what’s going on, neither can the reader and it puts us on edge. It’s a feeling that persists throughout the book.

There is plenty to like here, and the good points far outweigh the bad – a number of coincidences that just seem too trite, too neat. Lebbon paints a believable picture of a world that is rapidly falling apart – burning cities, army quickly deployed and even more quickly overrun, airspace patrolled in a vain attempt to keep the disease contained – and populates it with a group of people that it’s hard not to root for, even if we don’t necessarily like them. The climax, always a tough nut to crack in this type of novel, is satisfying and thought-provoking. This is no read-and-forget pulp horror; there is plenty of food for thought here.

In a welcome return to pure horror, Tim Lebbon has put a fresh twist on an old trope, and come up with Coldbrook. Fast-paced, blood-soaked and zombie-filled, it still manages a coherent and engaging storyline with an unsettling edge. I’m not afraid to admit that this one made me wary of turning off the lights at night, which puts it a cut above most of what’s out there in the resurgent tide of zombie fiction. Lebbon remains a solid, reliable writer who deserves to be better-known outside horror. Whether you’re new to the genre, or suffering zombie fatigue, I can’t recommend Coldbrook highly enough to you. Read it, enjoy it and, while you’re at it, hunt down some of Lebbon’s older horror novels. You can thank me later.

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