Today I am interviewing Mark A. Latham, author of the new Victorian SF novel, The Legion Prophecy, third book in The Apollonian Case Files.
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DJ: Hey Mark! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Mark: Thanks very much for having me. I’m a nineteenth-century-obsessed book nerd from Staffordshire, UK, and writer primarily of science fiction and Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Before that some people might know me from my time in the tabletop wargames industry – I was editor of Games Workshop’s White Dwarf magazine for a few years. I still do a sideline in games design now, working mainly on licensed products like Batman and The Walking Dead. I’ve been editing a Harry Potter game recently, which is seriously cool. But my main job is writing, which I’ve been doing full-time since Titan published the Lazarus Gate. I mention the previous jobs for two reasons: firstly, the discipline I gained from being a magazine editor has proved invaluable in managing my writing workload. Secondly, everything I’ve ever worked on in my adult career has been in some way related to sci-fi, fantasy and horror, which is a lifelong passion.
DJ: What is The Legion Prophecy and then The Apollonian Case Files about?
Mark: The actual Legion Prophecy of the title is actually a massive spoiler, so I won’t give away what it actually is, except to say that it was set up in book one, and is essentially the payoff I think a lot of readers have been waiting for. I like to horrify my readers and torture my characters a bit though, so don’t expect roses and birdsong on the way.
The casefiles are the records of the Order of Apollo, which is a secret agency based in the Apollonian Club, one of London’s exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. The Apollonian is fictional, but the idea came to me when I was reading the history of Athenaeum and the Reform clubs. With their exclusivity and secrecy, as well as high-ranking members of government within their membership, it seemed like the perfect recruiting ground for spies. The Order of Apollo basically recruits agents of the Crown, with a remit to investigate and combat threats beyond the capabilities of the Army or Special Branch – esoteric threats, in this case, from a parallel universe called the Otherside.
The first two books sort of set up this mythos – The Lazarus Gate was set in 1890, and introduced my hero, John Hardwick, who gets recruited by the club, manipulated at every turn, and ends up fighting threats he’s really not equipped to deal with. The second book, The Iscariot Sanction, was a bit of a curveball I think – it was a prequel, set in the Otherside, and ten years earlier. I like to make things difficult for myself! This was the story of how the Othersiders came to be bad, and is more of an action-driven tale rather than the investigative mystery of book one. It introduces the key threats: the Riftborn, who’re these Cthulhu-esque, world-eating demons, and the vampires.
Fast forward to the Legion Prophecy, and we’re back with John Hardwick, who is now a very bitter and twisted man, moulded by the things he’s seen, and the dark things he’s done in the name of Queen and country. He has to reconcile that pretty quickly, because the latest threat is a very personal and very deadly one.
DJ: What were some of your influences for The Apollonian Case Files?
Mark: I’ve been a huge fan of multiple-worlds narratives since I was a kid, and it seems only natural that it forms the basis of the first series I ended up writing as a grown-up. It probably started with Narnia, but it was Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman that was my favourite book as a teenager, and made me really want to write a multiple-worlds story.
Alongside that, I’ve lived and breathed Victorian literature just forever. Really, the books that I loved in my teens – Allan Quatermain, The Man Who Would be King, The Time Machine, The Sign of Four, and so on – they informed the themes that I knew I had to touch on. There are shades of Dracula and even Fu-Manchu in the first book, too.
Finally, I always like to include some elements of creeping dread in my stories, mainly because of my love of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories. Little homages to William Hope Hodgson, E F Benson, M R James, E Nesbit and even Dickens pop up fairly frequently.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Mark: It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for my protagonist. John Hardwick (named in the Victorian style to reflect his enduring nature and stout heart) is in part inspired by both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, with a bit of James Bond thrown in. He’s not as competent (or even as heroic perhaps) of any of them, but has a lot of the traits that make them admirable. He came back to England in the first book having served in the Army for ten years. He spent time in India, and then Burma, where he was captured by rebels and locked in a dungeon. Tortured for months and force-fed opium, he arrives home an addict, and suffering from what we now call PTSD, but which he struggles to cope with. Despite all of that darkness, he’s hopelessly out of his depth in matters of intrigue, because he’s too honest and trusting, and even when he’s betrayed twice over, he tries to do the right thing no matter what. At the end of the first book he’s forced to choose between his duty and his heart, and the decision he makes absolutely ruins him. The Legion Prophecy is set three years later. We learn that John is now a colonel, and one of the Order of Apollo’s most ruthless agents. That is, until he progressed through the ranks and learned some secrets that even he couldn’t stomach. So he goes into self-imposed exile in the countryside, knowing that he can never truly be free of the secret service.
That’s how (and why) I introduce the other protagonists, chiefly Captain James Denny. Formerly John’s best friend, they had a major falling out over life, love and duty. Jim was always the dashing, happy-go-lucky cavalry officer, a foil to John’s steadfast, earnest investigator. But since joining the Order he too has been changed, and not for the better.
Then there’s my gun-slinging, wise-cracking American adventuress Marie Furnival, new to this third book (although readers may well recognise her surname). But I won’t say anything about her because it’d be a huge spoiler. Suffice to say she’s my new favourite I think!
DJ: What is the world and setting of The Apollonian Case Files like?
Mark: There are two parallel universes described in these books, and others are hinted at. In ‘our’ universe, things are exactly as they were in our own history. Painstakingly so. I own around 200 books on nineteenth century history, geography, religion, science and exploration and I use it to make the world, and the language, as close as possible to the reality. I call it my Victorian Google. I’m a history nerd, and I love the nineteenth century – not for its problematic aspects, I hasten to add, but for the opportunities it presents a writer in terms of setting, character conflicts and so on. You want a sinister atmosphere? Look no further than London’s smog-strewn, cobbled streets. You want a character to feel isolated and alone? Stick him on a boat in a time when there were no telephones. You want to reflect inequality between rich and poor, or different races or sexualities, or the threat of war? Well, all of that was in abundance in Victorian Britain – in fact, it was a more concentrated melting pot than today – there’s a lot of this in the Legion Prophecy. It’s almost like the current political turmoil has had an effect on my work or something. *cough*
The basic premise is that the Otherside was once exactly like our world, but because of its proximity to the Rift, the rise of Spiritualism in the Victorian era has dire repercussions, causing the veil between worlds to tear, demons cavort in the streets, the dead rise, etc.
The problems for the Otherside started when the Fox sisters – the ‘mothers’ of modern spiritualism – first contacted the dead by means of their ‘spirit familiars’. In the Otherside, these familiars were actually demons, who had finally found a way into the real world. They gave the Fox sisters power, but the sisters themselves kept the demons in check. Now, in real life, one of the Fox Sisters survived an assassination attempt in New York. In the Otherside, the assassination attempt succeeded, and the death of Margaret Fox releases her demon. Half of New York falls into the sea, fire rains from the sky, millions are driven mad by the tearing of the veil. Kate Fox flees to London, where she is given asylum by Queen Victoria. In return for her prescient services, she stops the fate of the USA befalling Britain, and so the balance of power shifts.
The Otherside isn’t entirely a ‘steampunk’ world, although they do have access to some funky inventions, such as Tesla technology, that we don’t have in our own history. That’s why I call my series Victorian science fiction and not steampunk – a minor distinction really, but I’m carrying on the tradition of the likes of HG Wells, who set science fiction elements in an otherwise realist story – sort of a transreal story. Steampunk is much more fantastical, and more of a stylized aesthetic, not necessarily grounded in real history.
DJ: How have the reviews been from readers, bloggers, and reviewers for the first two books of The Apollonian Case Files? Is there anything that your audience seems to be particularly enjoying or is eager to find out more about?
Mark: I try not to pay too much heed to reviews, but it can be hard! I’ve been really lucky though, because on the whole bloggers and reviewers have said some really nice things about the series.
I was really surprised at some of the minor characters who seemed to capture the readers’ imaginations. One of the Otherside agents in the first book, Lillian, was a huge hit, even though she had a fairly small role and is thoroughly wicked. Weirdly, I’d always planned for her to be the protagonist of my prequel, and I think those readers got a kick out of seeing her as an action heroine.
One point of contention sometimes pops up regarding the ending of the Lazarus Gate – it really divides people, because it’s probably not the heroic, happy ending that everyone expects. Part of this is perhaps the steampunk connection I mentioned earlier – anyone coming to this series expecting steampunk-style action escapades, with a jolly spiffing punch on the nose for the baddies, and a hero who gets the girl and remains unscathed, is going to be in for a bumpy ride. All of my books have aspects of horror, and a real sense of visceral danger. Most of my characters (although not all) are morally ambiguous. I believe that any victory has to come at great cost. I think John’s actions in the Lazarus Gate really bear fruit in the Legion Prophecy. It’s a tragic hero’s journey – sometimes you have to break some eggs to make an omelette, you know?
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing The Legion Prophecy?
Mark: I was really able to cut loose with this one, and it’s much more varied in tone than the previous books. There’s intrigue, there’s action, there’s horror, there’s pulp adventure… each of the main characters brings their own style to the party, and I think that’s probably the answer: variety. This feels like an ensemble piece, kinda like how the Avengers movie was very different from Iron Man. And for the first time I got to introduce more fantastical elements to the ‘real’ universe, and that provides opportunities to examine social and political conflicts, reflecting some of what we see today. We get the battle of the sexes (and of sexuality), we get the threat of invasion from foreign powers – both known and unknown. We get Tesla weapons, and martial arts, and vampires, and psychics – it finally all comes together. I’ll be honest, I had a blast with this.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Mark: There are some pretty cataclysmic, rather cathartic moments in this book, and I think although there are some great victories for our heroes, and some answers to big questions from the series, readers will still have a lot of questions about exactly what befalls some of their favourites, and what happens in the rather tumultuous wake they leave. There’s at least one scene that I had to take a break from writing because it’s so emotionally draining, so I hope the impact that scene has on readers is suitably dramatic! There will be some pretty major changes to the status quo in the Legion Prophecy, and I expect readers will be trying to untangle what that means for their favourite characters, and the world at large, for some time to come. But the answers to those questions don’t necessarily need to be answered on the page. Well, maybe one day.
DJ: Did you have a goal when you began writing The Apollonian Case Files? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?
Mark: That’s a very deep question! I think each book has its own themes and message, and in many respects they can each stand alone because of that. We have some of the traditional Victorian themes of course – the sins of the father being visited on the son (and daughter) is an ever-present one, as is the idea that of struggling against one’s predetermined role (either through some ephemeral notion of ‘destiny’, or through societal constraints), and whether it’s ultimately better to stay true to one’s own self. All of my protagonists fight with that particular question, with varying degrees of success.
From an Otherside perspective, there’s a pretty huge moral question, of how far would you go to protect the world as you know it, and everyone you love? Would you commit atrocities if you truly believed it was for the ‘greater good’? In the Lazarus Gate, that question is made more personal when we see the motives of Lazarus himself, who sees on the Otherside an idealised version of the family he’d lost. He has a chance to restore his family – living a lie, essentially – but only if he betrays his own world. A world he’s come to resent. In the third book, we see this same question being presented to our own side: what price morality when faced with the potential destruction of an entire world? And where there is such power to be wielded, there are always those who’d try to acquire it for personal gain.
In the Legion Prophecy, there are some stark messages about warmongering, nuclear threat and government corruption, which sadly are even more relevant now than they were when I was actually writing the book!
DJ: I’m always curious when authors are writing multiple books in a series, how close to the original course they stay are staying or if it ended up evolving and changing. Did the plot stay the same as you had first imagined it? How about the ending? The evolution of your characters?
Mark: In my case, the series changed an awful lot in development. When I sold three books to Titan, I’d only finished the Lazarus Gate, and I had a rough outline for the second. What I did have was a big document full of ideas, and the concept I tried to pitch was of a series of disparate but interlinked stories, featuring the agents of Apollo at the centre, but not actually a continuous sequence. The first two books would set up the Hardwick story, while I could then go on to pick and choose other characters for other books. Unfortunately, that idea didn’t survive contact with marketing, and they pointed to one of the outlines on my big list, which was essentially the Legion Prophecy, give or take a few twists. So the ideas were always there, but the order in which they came to publication changed a lot. That does mean I have at least five outlines that didn’t get used, but the way I see it there’s no wasted effort in the writing game – if an idea is strong enough, it’ll find a home eventually.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from The Legion Prophecy that you can share with us?
Mark: I’m also a big lover of quotes, and I use a lot of them in the series. Every book starts with a Tennyson verse. It really is incredible how many great poems he wrote, and how you can always find a few lines that really evoke any given subject.
As for the Legion Prophecy, I guarantee the quotes that resonate with readers won’t be the ones I expect. I’m rather fond of all my less-than-heroic characters, like the slimy Lord Cherleten, one of the club’s spymasters. Upon finding Jim Denny at the Apollonian Club, dishevelled and shouting angrily, he reprimands him, adding: “You should know better, Captain Denny. Make yourself presentable, man. You’re in the Apollonian Club, not some Hackney chop-house. Black tie!” I take any opportunity to inject some British reserve and snide comment into my books.
I think my rootin’ tootin’ American, Miss Furnival, gets some of the best lines, whether in anger or in rough humour. When John Hardwick remarks that she doesn’t look very ladylike, due to smoking a cigar and being dressed like a man, she simply replies, “You mean the pants, or the stogie?” I think the reason I like her so much is because she lets me hold a mirror up to the mores and manners of the time. When she does confide in John, she says “Can you imagine what it’s like being a tomboy, growing up riding trails with cowboys, and then being told one day you have to go to England and dress like a lady and marry a rich gentleman? Of course you can’t. But Lillian Hardwick, well, she sure bucked the rules, so why couldn’t I?”
Although in fairness, John gets to be the growling, glowering action hero with: “Redemption is for romantics. I’d take a little justice over redemption right now.”
DJ: Now that The Legion Prophecy is released, what is next for you?
Mark: I’m currently working on my second Sherlock Holmes novel, a Gothic mystery called The Red Tower. After that, I’ve got a few things in the pipeline, from far-future SF to heroic fantasy… I love writing Victoriana, but I’d hate to become completely typecast. Watch this space, I guess!
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Mark: Thanks for having me, it’s been a pleasure, and I hope you enjoy the Legion Prophecy.
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*** The Legion Prophecy is published by Titan Books and is available TODAY!!! ***
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London, 1893. The Order of Apollo, investigator of mysterious events for the Crown, has been uncovering artefacts and refugees from another world, smuggled through boundaries that seem to be thinning. A breach would mean disastrous consequences for the entire universe. Meanwhile, rumours abound of an enemy the Order thought long-since dead, alive and gathering followers. Colonel John Hardwick, an embittered veteran of Apollo, is forced to join the fight again, with his former friend Captain Jim Denny and mysterious adventuress Marie Furnival. But facing this new threat brings them to dark secrets that implicate whole nations and threaten the very fabric of reality.
Mark A. Latham is a writer, editor, history nerd, frustrated grunge singer and amateur baker from Staffordshire, UK. A recent immigrant to Nottingham, he lives in a very old house (sadly not haunted), and is still regarded as a foreigner. Formerly the editor of White Dwarf magazine, Mark dabbled in tabletop games design before becoming a full-time author. A writer of strange, fantastical and macabre tales, his short stories have been published by Titan Books and Black Library Publishing. Mark’s début novel, The Lazarus Gate, is available now from all good bookstores.