Interview with Cameron Johnston, The author of The Maleficent Seven
About Cameron: Cameron Johnston is the British Fantasy Award and Dragon Awards nominated author of dark fantasy novels The Traitor God and God of Broken Things. He is a swordsman, a gamer, and an enthusiast of archaeology, history and mythology. He loves exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars by a roaring fire.
Thank you for joining us, Cameron, and welcome to Fantasy Book Critic! Before we start, tell us a little about yourself.
Hello, and thanks for having me here! I’m a level 41 writer of fantasy hailing from sunny Scotland, known for writing the grimdark-adjacent The Traitor God and God of Broken Things. I love archaeology and history, castles and other ancient places and take a lot of inspiration from things like that, and work aspects of them all into my writing.
Who are some of your favorite writers, and why is their work important to you?
Michael Moorcock - One of the masters of swords and sorcery who taught me how weird and wonderful a multiverse of magic, intriguing characters and intense stories could be. The possibilities of fantasy go as far as you can imagine. Great characters like Elric and Corum are firmly lodged inside my head now.
Robin Hobb - The master of the emotional gut-punch. She makes you care about her characters so much, and that’s a vital skill to learn for any up and coming author. Draw the reader in and then crush them. Poor Fitz...
HP Lovecraft - a man afraid and scornful of everything outside of his own white, educated antiquarian existence, but this fear permeates all his cosmic horror stories. I first read him on a stormy night with rain and wind battering the windows, and that feeling stuck with me. To this day when I wander ancient places, I wonder what the real reasons for their construction were, and if some dread horror slumbers beneath the earth. His works have been a huge influence.
We loved The Maleficent Seven; it’s bonkers but in the best possible way. What prompted you to write it?
Oh, it’s absolute mayhem. Which I love! It was such incredible fun to write those great characters. I grew up reading big fat epic fantasy books about farm boy heroes and dark lords needing vanquished, but I always wondered what the dark lord’s side of the story was - and I imagined them having much more complex and interesting backstories than the hero of the story. Look at Loki from the MCU - a character who does evil deeds, and yet we know why and still love him for his charisma and sense of fun. I’ve been wanting to write the dark lord’s side of the story for a long time, but this idea for a story about seven of them popped into my head and refused to leave.
How would you describe the plot of The Maleficent Seven if you had to do so in just one or two sentences?
An army of fanatics aims to purge a town and spread their dark faith across the rest of the continent. Seven legendary villains, reluctantly reunited for the first time in forty years, are all that stand in their way.
Who are the key players in this story? Could you introduce us to The Maleficent Seven's protagonists and antagonists?
Of course, the *coughcough* ‘heroes’, are:
- Dread demonologist Black Herran, the general who abandoned her army of the eve of total conquest.
- Vampire, Lorimer Felle, suave lord of Fade’s Reach, driven out by the Lucent army.
-Cold-hearted necromancer, Maeven, scarred and scornful.
-Orc chieftain, Amogg Hadakk, bold and brash and brutal.
-Fallen war-god, Tiarnach, crude and callous god of a slain people.
- Twisted Alchemist, Jerak Hyden, who views humans as mere sloppy machines.
-Pirate queen, Verena Awildan, scourge of the seas.
And on the other side, the Falcon Prince, fanatical leader of a dark new faith sweeping the land, slaying all believers of the old ways and old magics. With his divine fire, he aims to purge all evil from the land and replace it with his own truthful goodness.
All characters are distinct and memorable, perhaps because they’re all larger-than-life:) Did you have a specific vision for each of the characters, or did they just emerge from the writing process?
I knew this book would be dark - since it’s an adult fantasy book focussing on villains, how could it be otherwise. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be funny, and I wanted all the character to be able to play off of each other. With no pretention of writing ‘the great book of our age’ I just wanted to write a thoroughly entertaining book, so I took a bunch of fantasy villain archetypes and tweaked them until they became my own thing. I started with Black Herran, the grandmother, and ex-general who controls demons, and the ideas for Lorimer and Maeven quickly followed and they and their abilities developed further as I wrote the story. Amogg then punched her way free of my subconscious and Tiarnach sauntered in right after, both of those characters appearing almost fully formed. Jerak Hyden and Verena Awildan came in later, serving their respective roles of truly twisted monster and the most human and relatable of the bunch of bad people.
My favorite one is Lorimer Felle – a well-mannered killing machine. How long did it take you to “nail” his persona?
Almost no time at all - his voice and demeanour popped into my head pretty much fully developed. I may have imagined Idris Elba as a vampire somewhere during the development process... As one of the more physically monstrous of the bunch, I also just felt that Lorimer would also be one of the more socially and mentally reasonable. A monster on the outside, but not so much on the inside. Just don’t cross him...
Which of the characters is your favorite?
That’s a hard one. Lorimer Felle’s unsettling body-shifting and lordly attitude, and Amogg Hadakk’s insight into the human condition and her own orcish ways, made them both particularly fun to write. I think, perhaps, Tiarnach just pips them to the post though. I really enjoyed his character arc and foul-mouthed shit-stirring.
What drew you to using an omniscient point of view for this story?
When I wrote The Traitor God and God of Broken Things, they are both told from the first person point of view of Edrin Walker, which presented problems with what I wanted to show the reader when there was so much going on around him he was not there to see himself. I decided to stretch myself as a writer and leap to the other side of that narrative river by doing seven main points of view this time. Now, you can see *everything*.
What difficulties presented themselves as a result? What did you have to be mindful about as you were writing?
Apart from the peril of head-hopping confusion for a reader, it was a delicate balance on how deep into the character’s minds I wanted to delve. You have to leave plenty of room for the reader to fill in subtext and their own assumptions as to why a character is acting they way they are, otherwise you spoon feed them absolutely everything, which I tend to find a bit boring as a reader.
Many writers avoid using omniscient POV – it’s extremely difficult to do it right. Additionally, readers (and reviewers!) often perceive “head-hopping” as a flaw. Do you have any strategies for avoiding this?
Part of my strategy was to give each of the characters an individual voice in the writing - you can often tell who we are following by that alone. A Lorimer segment will use slightly more formal and introspective language and speech tics, whereas an Amogg segment will be coarser and wilder. Also, it’s just plain easier for the reader if a writer says the character name or gives some other big hint of who exactly we are meant to be following.
What do you think characterizes your writing style in general?
Dark and gritty, but not entirely serious. I usually have some amount of humour in the mix - I for one do not want to read books that are entirely doom and gloom that leave me wanting to slit my own wrists. I find even a little light in the darkness goes a long way.
Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of The Maleficent Seven?
Mostly, traditionally published authors get very little input into cover decisions. But Angry Robot seems to be an exception when it comes to publishers. We had some good discussions back and forward about wanting bold colours, something hinting at danger. The original cover was used for the Advanced Reader Copy, and that was a striking acid-green, but for the final copy cover we decided smoke and flame and sparks, and bold silhouettes might work very well. And it did!
Will we get the audio version any time soon?
Thankfully, paperback, ebook and audio book should all be out on the same release day of August 10th. No waiting around here!
Have you written The Maleficent Seven with a particular audience in mind?
Mostly, me. It’s a book I’d like to read myself, and one that excites and amuses me. So on that score I will call it a success, but I’d hope that any fan of darker-leaning epic fantasy or even outright grimdark will love it, as should most fantasy readers that don’t mind villains doing actually villainous and horrible things in the name of a greater good. There is a good dose of humour and camaraderie in the book as well so it’s not all doom and gloom and blood and guts.
What are you currently working on that readers might be interested in learning more about, and when can we expect to see it released?
I don’t have anything contracted at the moment, but I do have another standalone Celtic-inspired fantasy that I am working on right now that I hope will get snapped up and do well. Watch this space...
Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?
It’s been a difficult time for all of us of late, and working on a book as entertaining as The Maleficent Seven with all its full-on characters and black humour really helped get me through it. I hope all of you have found a similar solace between the pages of books - what magical things they are, containing worlds beyond number! Thanks for sharing this little space of the web with me for a time, and if you pick up the book, I hope it knocks your socks off.