Talking Fantasy With John Marco

by Claire E. White

It is not often (if ever) that an author whose
Photo of John Marco
first series was labeled as "military fantasy" gets a rave review and is listed as a "Top Pick" from Romantic Times magazine. But bestselling fantasy novelist John Marco's work appeals to many different kinds of readers. His first novel was The Jackal of Nar (Bantam), the first book in the award-winning Tyrants and Kings series, which received rave reviews from fans and critics alike. Known for his epic storytelling with intriguing characters and thought-provoking storylines, John is now internationally known for his unique brand of epic fantasy, which explores universal themes of love, war, friendship -- but always with that special and unpredictable twist that you never see coming. In the worlds of John Marco, the good guys aren't always good and the bad guys aren't always all bad -- which makes for some very interesting characters with complex motivations.

John's latest book is The Devil's Armor (DAW), which is the sequel to The Eyes of God (DAW). In The Devil's Armor, the Arthurian story set up in the first book expands to include more characters and a wider worldview. The hero of the story is Lukien, the Bronze Knight of Liiria -- who has lost both his best friend and the love of his life -- is now the protector of the fortress of Grimhold, the home of the Inhumans: humans who have severe disabilities and have been ostracized by normal society. Grimhold also holds many secrets, including the powerful and forbidden Devil's Armor, which is inhabited by a powerful and seemingly evil Akari spirit which can make the wearer invincible. The Devil's Armor features an array of intriguing characters, from the driven Jazana Carr, the Diamond Queen whose thirst for conquest is based on unrequited love, to King Lorn the Wicked, the deposed ruler of Norvor and now single parent of a deaf infant, to Baron Thorin Glass, whose rejection by the Inhuman Meriel paves the way for his succumbing to the lure of the Devil's Armor. It is a powerful and moving story, full of passion, adventure, war and magic. It is ultimately a story about free will and choice; each character's choices have profound results for themselves and the fate of those around them. It is a very accessible work, even for readers who don't usually read fantasy. Although set in a fantasy setting, the themes explored in the book are relevant in today's world and will resonate strongly with readers.

John spoke to us about The Devil's Armor, his expanding female readership and what he thinks is the definition of a real-life hero.

I'd like to talk about the new book, The Devil's Armor, the second in the series that began with The Eyes of God. What was the greatest challenge in writing this book? Is it perhaps a shade darker in tone than The Eyes of God?

Cover of The Devil's Armor by John Marco
This is a good question to start with, because when I think about this book and what it took to write it, I think of the challenges I had with it. Probably the biggest challenge was juggling all the various storylines. The first book, The Eyes of God, was more straightforward. The story was a lot more linear. In The Devil's Armor, though, it's all about different characters and storylines coming together. When the book starts, it's tough to see what all the characters have to do with each other. They all had their own chronology, but things had to unfold in a certain sequence. On the other hand, I think that's what makes the book exciting and keeps readers turning pages. One of the things I love to hear most is when a reader tells me my books are unpredictable. That's when I know I've done my job.

Is this book a book a bit darker than The Eyes of God?

Yes, I guess it is, though that wasn't done deliberately in that I set out to write something with dark overtones. It just kind of happened naturally. The story seemed to require it. For one thing, the title has a dark tint to it, and then there's the whole thing that the title represents, namely the suit of armor possessed by the spirit of a dead general. And really, when I stop to think about it, all of my stories have a dark element to them. It's part of what excites me.

In the book, we finally get to learn more about the mysterious and fascinating Akari. How did you approach writing the Akari? Did they present any particular difficulties?

Cover of The Eyes of God by John Marco
For those who haven't read either of the books, the Akari are a dead, ancient race whose spirits have lived on in a place called Grimhold. The Akari help the people of Grimhold, bonding with them and using their magic to help them overcome whatever maladies or disabilities they have. At first, the Akari were difficult to write about, because I had to work out their history. A lot of this history doesn't actually make it into the first book, but I had to know it anyway. Who were they? Why did they all die out? Why are they helping the people of Grimhold? It was strange having to create all of that backstory for characters that aren't really seen, or seen so rarely. Plus, the Akari don't communicate the way normal characters do. They communicate through thought, and that made it tougher to bring them to life.

Over time, though, I've come to enjoy writing about the Akari. It's much easier for me now, because I know so much more about them. To me they feel just as real as the flesh-and-blood characters. They're also fun to write about because each Akari spirit has his or her own story, a particular reason why they've chosen to help the living.

Lukien, the Bronze Knight, is older and wiser in this book. He is still mourning his lost love, Cassandra, which keeps him from moving on with his personal life. How do you believe that Lukien has changed since the beginning of the series?

I think you nailed it when you said that Lukien is older and wiser. That's certainly true, and I think that comes through in this book. In the first book he starts off as very sure of himself, maybe a little arrogant, and something of a pretty boy. But by the time the second book rolls around, he's been through so much that he's really changed. He's still confidant in his abilities as a warrior, especially since he really can't die anymore (a sort of mixed blessing that's explained in the books), but I think he's a lot less sure about his judgment. He knows he had made mistakes, and he struggles to rectify them. Often times he can't, however, and that's probably the element that drives him the most.

" When I tell about a character's unrequited love, I know that the reader can understand it because it's probably something he or she has experienced. It comes with a subtext that we all can understand, if we'll just take the time to remember how it felt, how miserable it made us or how it turned us into someone who is shy, or maybe the opposite -- in the extreme, as in literature, maybe unrequited love can drive a person mad."
Another thing about Lukien that's changed is my own attitude about him. It took some time for me to warm up to him, because he was the main character in a brand new series for me, and I was still attached to the characters from my first series, Tyrants and Kings. But I can honestly say now that I have come to love writing about Lukien, perhaps more than any of my previous characters. And I think that readers are coming to enjoy him, too, and want him to succeed. Despite any things he might have done wrong in his past, he is a solid, good man. Occasionally, I get emails from readers who can't see that. Frankly, that bothers me, because it seems so obvious.

Jazana Carr, the Diamond Queen, is a complex and very interesting woman. Jazana seems determined to conquer most of the known world using her vast wealth. Jazana is incredibly cynical, but she was horribly hurt by Baron Glass' betrayal of her. How did you create the character of Jazana? What was your inspiration for her?

I think of Jazana Carr as a kind of orphan who decides to take control of her life and destiny. She's not the kind of woman who sits around, waiting for someone to rescue her. She's as strong and iron-willed as any of the men in the story, probably more so because she is so convinced in the rightness of what she's doing. And yes, she is cynical! I think that's the part I like best about her, because it's the part of her personality that makes her edgy and humorous. But it also makes her vulnerable. Her cynicism is a wall that she's erected around herself to protect herself from being hurt, because so many men in her life have hurt and disappointed her.

Jazana is positioned as the villain in The Devil's Armor, but she's really not a villain at all. She's not a hero, certainly, but there's too much humanity in her to think of her as evil. As calculating as she can be, she's also warm and generous.

Another character that we see a lot more of is Baron Thorin Glass. He finally succumbs to the lure of The Devil's Armor, which is inhabited by the Akari spirit, Kahldris. Now, I know everyone says that Kahldris is totally evil, but I can't help thinking that his agenda is more complex than we might imagine. Will we learn more about Kahldris in the next book? Will it give too much away to tell us if he's totally evil or if there is more to this powerful spirit than the other Akari realize?

Let me try to answer this without giving too much away. Is there more to Kahldris as a character than is revealed so far? Yes, certainly. In the third book (which I'm currently writing), we get to see more about Kahldris, what makes him tick, his history, and so on. I'm not really good at creating totally evil characters. I've said this before, but I'm not sure how I would even go about doing that, because once I spend any length of time with a character they start becoming more sympathetic to me, and I start realizing why they do the things they do. So yes, Kahldris has more to him. He has motives. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that his motives are pure or excuse any of the terrible things he does.

Cover of The Jackal of Nar by John Marco (Tyrants and Kings,
Book 1)
As for Baron Glass, he's also become more complex in this book. In the first book he was a more minor character, but in The Devil's Armor he takes on a much more central role. He brings a lot to the story because he has a rich history. For one thing, he's one of the oldest characters in the book, which means he has had a lot of experiences that drive him. He's also very careful about the decisions he makes. To me, Baron Glass is a wise man who knows the possible consequences of his actions.

One of the themes that this book explores is the overcoming of physical challenges, such as those that are faced by the Inhumans, and environmental challenges, e.g., when events conspire to make life difficult. What's the best advice you ever received or read about how to keep going when things get tough?

Oh boy, that's a tough one to answer. I've been luckier than a lot of people. I've never had a lot to overcome, and I've always had a good family and good friends I could lean on to help me get through difficulties. The thing I like to remember when I'm faced with a challenge is to consider how things will be if I give up. Time is going to march on with or without me, whether or not I write another book or not, etc. Ten years from now I'll be ten years older, but if I don't keep going I'll be in the same place with the same problems. Thinking about that is usually enough to keep me motivated. I get a lot of emails from people who want to be writers, but when it comes to doing the work required they shrink from the challenge. But if they don't put in the work, then they'll never see their dream of getting published become a reality. The days and years are still going to pass, but unless they get started they're not going to make progress.

Of course, trying to reach a goal like getting published or graduating college isn't the same as living with debilitating illness, like the Inhumans in the story. When I write about the Inhumans I'm inspired by the people you read about or see on television who "run" a marathon in a wheelchair or face crowded city streets even though they can't see. Those people are heroic.

There is quite a bit of unrequited love in this book: Jazana's longing for Baron Glass, the Baron's hopeless love for Meriel, Lukien's longing for his dead love Cassandra and Meriel's total obsession with Lukien. The book explores how unrequited love and obsession can affect people's personalities and lives, sometimes with horrendous results. What interested you about this theme?

It's such a classic theme, unrequited love. It's part of the human condition, and almost all of us have experienced it at some point in our lives. And because it's such a powerful experience, it's fertile ground for storytelling. When I tell about a character's unrequited love, I know that the reader can understand it because it's probably something he or she has experienced. It comes with a subtext that we all can understand, if we'll just take the time to remember how it felt, how miserable it made us or how it turned us into someone who is shy, or maybe the opposite -- in the extreme, as in literature, maybe unrequited love can drive a person mad. All of the characters need an engine to drive them. In The Devil's Armor, I wanted there to be similarities between each of them and their motivations. I wanted to have a central theme that ties the story together. It also gives the story a touch of sadness.

There are quite a few complex female characters in this book, who are all quite different from one another and whose voices all ring true to me. Are you more comfortable writing female characters than you were when you first began writing? Has being married affected the way you get inside your female characters' heads?

"There's no question that fantasy authors don't get the same respect that thriller writers get.... This used to bother me a lot more than it does now, but over time I've come to accept it as the way things are. That doesn't mean that I think it should be that way, however. I don't think that writing a thriller takes more skill than writing a fantasy novel, or that thriller writers are on balance any better than those of us writing fantasy."
First of all, I'm glad that the female characters ring true to you. That's wonderful to hear, because I really want female readers to feel that my books are meant for them too, and not just male readers. Even though there's a good bit of action and warfare in my books, there's a lot of romance and relationships as well. So then someone says that my female characters ring true, I feel like I'm on the right track.

But to answer your questions, yes, I am definitely more comfortable writing from the female point of view than I was in my previous books, and yes, I'm fairly certain that my wife has had something to do with that. For one thing, she and I talk a lot. We're one of those couples who are pretty good at communicating, and through her I've learned a lot about women, their likes and dislikes, and how strong and compassionate they are. Now when I write about a female character, I try to blend those two traits. It isn't always easy for me, because I still have my own ideas about the roles of women, how they act and so on. For example, readers of my books know that I don't often have women in fighting roles. That's just not how I see the world in which my books take place. But that doesn't mean that they don't have a role to play. Jazana Carr, for example, has conquered an entire nation while barely getting her hands dirty. She's as tough as any of the men around her, but more importantly she's smarter than them.

I sometimes think your first series (Tyrants and Kings) got labeled as "Military Fantasy" by some people, which was off-base to me. It was an epic fantasy to me: although there were skillfully written battle scenes, there was also romance, politics and some magic. What are your thoughts on the characterization of your books?

I certainly agree with you about the labeling of my first series. I never liked the term "military fantasy," because it felt off-base to me as well. Like I mentioned previously, I've always thought of my books as being more than just about warfare. War is just the context in which those stories unfolded. It was the catalyst for the story, but not the whole story. And in truth, there were real, die-hard fans of military fantasy who felt misled by the label. They wanted more action and a lot less about the characters and their relationships. Obviously, I'm not the right author for them. That's okay; I don't mind at all. I just want people to understand what they're picking up.

Some fantasy authors include detailed religions in their books, others, Tolkien for example, leave the question of religion out of the plot entirely. What are your thoughts on the inclusion of religion in epic fantasy?

Cover of The Grand Design by John Marco (Tyrants and Kings,
Book 2)
It's different for every author, certainly, and as you pointed out, religion doesn't have to be included to create a compelling fantasy world. For my books, though, I include religion because it's part of the story. I'm drawn to religion as a theme, I love exploring notions about life after death, deities, and the moral issues of religion. It just seems natural to me to include religions in my books as part of the whole world-building process, but again that's probably because my stories revolve -- at least partially -- around religion.

The funny thing is that I'm not a very religious person in my day to day life. Because they've read my books, people often ask me what my own religious beliefs are, do I have something against such and such religion, and so on. When you use religion as a theme, you have to be prepared for these kinds of questions, because it touches a nerve. But I don't mind answering these questions because religion interests me, and I enjoy talking about it.

When the Seekers cross the Desert of Tears to reach a place of sanctuary and freedom, they are viciously attacked and murdered by Prince Aztar and his raiders who despise anyone who sets foot on what Aztar considers holy ground. Prince Aztar is so full of mindless rage and hate for the free people of Grimhold....he sounds a lot like Osama bin Laden. Am I off the mark here?

No, you're not off the mark at all. You are precisely correct. Prince Aztar is modeled somewhat on that kind of violent fanatic, because it's something we're all dealing with now. I knew that people would draw this parallel, and I'm glad when they do. Prince Aztar is, in my opinion, horribly misguided, and he comes to pay for his ignorance.

One of the things I want people to know is that I was writing The Devil's Armor before September 11th happened. I was in the middle of writing it, in fact, so although the story was already pretty much outlined, it became all the more visceral for me one the U.S. was attacked. I had to stop working on the book for a while, because like everyone else I was shocked and hurt by what had happened. Then when I started writing again I was a changed person, just like everyone else was changed by September 11th.

I noticed that you dedicated the book to the men and women of the U.S. armed Forces. Why was it important to you to do that? Have you known people who have served in the military, friends or family?

First, I'm glad you noticed the dedication. I hope everyone does. And I'm glad that you mentioned it here, because it gives me another chance to say thanks to all the great people in the military. While I was writing the book, I couldn't think of anyone or any group who deserved the dedication more. Here I was, writing a book, pursuing my own version of the American dream, while other Americans were over in Afghanistan fighting for the freedom to pursue that very dream. It seemed to obvious to me that they deserved my thanks.

Yes, I've had friends and family who have served in the military. I love hearing about their time in the service. But more than that, I love hearing from readers in the military who have somehow find the time to read my books and write to me about them. I've gotten a number of emails from active duty military people over the years, and I've cherished every one of them.

Can you give us some hints about what happens in The Sword of Angels, the next book in the series?

It's tough to give hints about The Sword of Angels, because it follows so closely after the end of The Devil's Armor. The book literally begin where the last book ends. I can say that all of the characters in the first book are back, and all of the storylines that are exposed in the first two books are finally tied up. Almost certainly, this will be the last book about Lukien and the Inhumans, because I'm satisfied with the ending I have for the storyline, and I don't really like to keep things going forever. I can also say that we learn a lot more about the Akari and their magic, and a lot more about Kahldris as well. More than that, I don't think I should say. Sorry.

You've always been fortunate with the quality of the artwork of your covers, it seems to me. The cover art for The Devil's Armor is absolutely stunning, I thought. What are your thoughts on cover art? Have you been involved in the process at all? Are you happy with the way your covers have turned out?

I love fantasy artwork, and always have. When I was a boy I used to flip through art books by Boris Vallejo and the Hildebrandt brothers, and I used to gush about how talented they were and imagine what it would be like to have one of them paint a cover for one of my books. That hasn't happened, but I've been lucky to have terrific artists work on my books, and I've been very pleased with all of their works. I'm not really very involved in the process. Sometimes I'm asked to give the artist some general ideas, and that's always fun, and sometimes those ideas make it into the cover. Most times they don't, frankly. I had a very good working relationship with Doug Beekman, the man who did the American covers for my Tyrants and Kings books. Doug is one of my favorite artists, and working with him was a pleasure. He would solicit input from me from time to time and keep my informed about his thought process. I miss working with him, but the artists I've had since have also produced great covers. The cover for the U.S. version of The Devil's Armor is actually one of my favorites. It's not a traditional fantasy cover; it has more of a "fine art" feel to it. Some people love it, while others have said they would have preferred a more traditional fantasy cover. To me, though, the cover is perfect. There's a maturity about it that I like and that I hope fits the book.

When you are writing a new book, do you ever let anyone read what you've written before it's final? Do you ever discuss your work with your wife?

"I think that there are heroes all around us, quietly doing heroic things. To me, a hero is someone who dedicates him/herself to others. Sometimes the sacrifice is tremendous, like all those people who died on September 11th. Other times, the sacrifice is quieter, like the mother or father who goes to an unfulfilling job everyday so that their children will have the things they need."
I do discuss the work with my wife, but no, I never let anyone read my works while they're in progress. I'm not at all comfortable with that idea, because I really don't want input at that point. I have a story in my head that I want to tell, and to tell in a certain way. Later, when the book is done and my editor reads it, she's able to see where I was going and if I succeeded, but you really can't tell that by reading half a book.

How do you feel about the fact that your work is becoming so well known in other countries? Have you heard from non-U.S. fans?

It's wonderful to have my books published in other countries. When I get those books from those publishers, they go right up on my shelf next to the U.S. editions. All of the countries in which I've been published have a much smaller readership than here in the U.S., but their fans are just as loyal, and yes, I do hear from them sometimes. It's a great thrill.

One of the complaints I hear from authors who write in genres such as fantasy, SF and romance is that sometimes they feel that they don't get the same respect that thriller writers or "literary" authors do. Do you think that fantasy writers get the same amount of respect in the publishing world as, say, authors of legal thrillers?

There's no question that fantasy authors don't get the same respect that thriller writers get. Part of that has to do with sheer numbers. Some fantasy authors do sell a lot of books, but thrillers just sell so many more. It's a more widely accepted genre with a lot more readers. This used to bother me a lot more than it does now, but over time I've come to accept it as the way things are. That doesn't mean that I think it should be that way, however. I don't think that writing a thriller takes more skill than writing a fantasy novel, or that thriller writers are on balance any better than those of us writing fantasy. In fact, I have read some dazzling fantasy authors that are every bit as skilled as authors writing in any other genre.

This kind of debate is going to rage on forever. The important thing for a genre writer to do is accept it, because I don't think it will ever change. And that's okay, because fantasy, like romance, is a tremendously vibrant genre with many, many dedicated readers.

I understand that you are in the process of designing a new website. What prompted the change? What are some of the things that you either like or don't like from a design standpoint on author websites?

Yes, I had my old website ( up for years. It was up even before my first book came out, to try to create some awareness of the book. It was a lot of fun, but after a while it got tired and I needed a break from it. For one thing, I was running out of things to say. I used to update it every month with news about me and my books, but that became increasingly difficult because there was just not that much happening. Writing a book isn't all that exciting, actually. Most days are exactly the same. So, while I'm taking a break from the old website, I'm thinking about things for my new website, which I will probably put up some time next year.

As far as author websites go, I like interaction. I have always wanted to put up a message board on my website, but I never did. They're a great way to hear what readers are thinking, what they like, and how excited they are about an upcoming book. They also foster a sense of community among the readers which I think is helpful. Message boards can also invite trouble too, which is probably why I never put one up. But I might just do it when I launch my new site.

If you were magically forced to become one of your own characters in one of your own books for a year, who would you be and why?

I don't think I could be any one of my characters for a whole year! That would be unbearable, because all of them have to go through so much turmoil. But if I absolutely had to be one of them, I would probably say Gilwyn Toms, from my current series. Gilwyn is one of the only characters that doesn't have any skeletons in his closet. That's not to say he hasn't had his challenges, because he has -- he was orphaned, he has disabilities, but he also has a pure heart and a lot of quiet charisma. He's the kind of young man I would want my own son to grow up to be like. Also, Gilwyn hasn't let his life's difficulties destroy him in any way. He's always learning from life. He's got an open mind, which is a trait I admire.

Fantasy books always have heroes. In your opinion, what makes someone a hero in real life?

I think that there are heroes all around us, quietly doing heroic things. Every once in a while the newspapers highlight them, calling attention to something great or selfless that they've done, but mostly they go unnoticed. To me, a hero is someone who dedicates him/herself to others. Sometimes the sacrifice is tremendous, like all those people who died on September 11th. Other times, the sacrifice is quieter, like the mother or father who goes to an unfulfilling job everyday so that their children will have the things they need. When I see someone like that I like to take the time to acknowledge what they're doing, just in my head, and remember that you don't have to save someone from a burning building to be a hero. Being a hero is about sacrifice.

Cover of The Saints of the Sword by John Marco (Tyrants and Kings,
Book 3)
Do you ever make New Year's Resolutions? Do you have any resolutions for 2004 for yourself? Are there any New Year's Resolutions that you wish any people (or organizations) would make for 2004?

I used to make New Year's Resolutions when I was younger, but I don't do that any more. Now my "resolutions" are things that apply to my day to day life throughout the year. These are things like spending time with my family, making sure that I work on my books and get them done on time, and studying for school. You know -- all those things that we're supposed to do anyway.

I've never thought about resolutions that I wished others would make, but come to think of it I wish people would read more. Not just my books (though that would be nice!), but any kind of books. Not magazines, mind you, but books. It used to be that when I rode the train, lots of people around me would be reading books. Now most of them are talking on cell phones or tapping on laptops. I liked the old days better.

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