Must read of the week: The serpent calls
Reviewer Gwyneth Rees has high praise for high-fantasy novel The Serpent Calls by neurodiverse author Christopher Bramley, which she finds to be a rich and enthralling read.
By Gwyneth Rees
Prepare to enter a vivid, magical realm like no other that, while packed with mystery, danger and suspense, once visited, you’ll never wish to leave.
For The Serpent Calls— the first instalment of a thrilling new series of high-fantasy novels—is epic in every sense of the word.
Written by author Christopher Bramley and set within the fictional World of Kuln, it presents a richly detailed universe that drips with deep lore and which is populated by an impressive cast of heroes and villains, gods and demons, and a colourful bestiary of fantastic creatures including the essentials—such as dragons, ogres, vampires and zombies—and new additions including gigantic gar-wolves, grabber octopuses and Greater Dragons (the latter which would make the gargantuan sandworms of Dune shake in fear).
Those familiar with the works of the great fantasy writers of the past, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, will feel immediately at home between its pages, yet will quickly find that while the author undoubtedly pays homage to his own literary heroes, he succeeds admirably in presenting his own original take on the genre, conjuring up a living, breathing backdrop to frame the storyline.
From the very first page of The Serpent Calls, the reader is immediately thrown straight into the action.
It is night, and in the city of Meyar an old man is fleeing for his life, pursued through the dark streets by a remorseless killer.
It is worth sharing an extract from this opening to give a taster of just how superb a writer Bramley is. Every sentence sings with evocative detail, and is phrased clearly yet uniquely, serving its purpose of instantly wrapping you within the story.
Turning, he saw the murky silhouette of a man lick the black wetness off his knife blade deliberately, horribly, and panicked. As he ran from the demon clothed in flesh before him, he heard running footfalls following. For the first time he could remember in a long life dedicated to thinking, he acted without thought. He simply ran for his life.
He paid no heed to the buried realisation that he ran into the darkness of Crowden where thieves and cut-throats lurked, away from the pools of light marking the main thoroughfare. He ran from the laughing figure, fear lending him movements that stiff joints and a plump midsection hadn’t had for years, but he knew it was not enough.
The poor man’s pursuer, the brutally sadistic and murderous assassin Ventran, is searching for a pendant, described to him as a “key to power”.
Having cornered and dispatched his victim with glee, Ventran fails to find the desired item and reports the news back to his master, Sontles, whose frail figure belies his true nature as “someone used to dealing death, and being obeyed”.
In turn, Sontles, desperate for as-yet unnamed reasons to acquire the pendant in the service of his god, Terome, sets in motion an attack on the Darostim, a secretive sect of scholars that the old man had belonged to.
Meanwhile, in a village called The Croft, near the great Northing Woods, it is the birthday of a boy called Karland.
Tensions, however, are running high in his family, and feeling lonely and dejected rather than celebratory, Karland runs away, heading into the woods, which he is forbidden to enter, as a fitting punishment for his parents.
Here he camps overnight, cold and hungry, and his situation is no better come morning when, foraging for food, he stumbles into the den of a grizzled, cold-hearted hunter.
An argument ensues and Karland’s life is only spared because the hunter’s prey, a bear, suddenly appears and dispatches him in savage justice for the slaughter of her cubs.
Karland runs away but falls and breaks his arm. It is in this pitiful state that he found and aided by Aldwyn Varelin, a scholar and healer with dark prophecies for the future.
With this chance encounter the two separate strands of the story begin to intertwine, marking the starting point of an epic journey that is always the centrepiece of any fantasy novel worth the price of admission.
Ventran continues to hunt for the pendant, creating a bloodbath wherever he travels, and this leads Aldwyn, who is the possessor of the item, to take flight, fearing his discovery, and taking the young Karland with him.
Setting out for Darost, the home of Aldywn’s sect, the duo meet with Rast Tal’Orien, an old friend of Aldwyn who reports of worsening troubles within the kingdom. Karland, meanwhile, meets a girl of his age called Xhera, who immediately captures his heart.
Reaching the council of elders, which is preparing for war, Aldwyn and Karland are dispatched on a mission deep into the continent of Anaria to find out how the pendant can help defeat the oncoming darkness descending on the land.
They will journey into strange and deadly regions populated by orcs and other races, while heading ever onwards to the Hall of Wyrms, guarded by the most titanic of dragons.
The Serpent Calls, then, is undoubtedly an ambitious and vast tale, and one to rival such classics as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
As is to be expected with works of high fantasy, it is a big book—coming in at more than 500 pages—but you will savour every moment accompanying the likeable protagonists in Kuln, which feels as real and three-dimensional as any terrestrial realm.
In many ways, it parallels our planet though through a mirror darkly, with megafauna and gigantic monsters dominating the landscape. This is all explained logically, attributed to a higher concentration of oxygen and a lower gravity, and is but one example of author Christopher Bramley’s meticulous attention to detail and plausibility.
This could, perhaps, be down to Bramley—who is a TEDx speaker, coach and consultant covering topics of complexity, agility, resilience and human learning—being a neurodiverse author with high-functioning autism.
His mental make-up enables him to focus on every little aspect of his created realm, so that while sprawling it is rendered in print with the precision of an architect and forged with the talents of a true wordsmith.
In terms of tone, the work effortlessly shifts gear where required to keep readers entertained throughout, ranging from the poetic language of high fantasy to the tenors of comedy and outright horror.
The dialogue sparkles and is delivered by well-rounded characters, from the despicable Ventran to our proxy, Karland, whose entire worldview is gradually replaced as the innocence of childhood is replaced by the gritty realities of the adult world he encounters.
In fact, the key word to sum up The Serpent Calls should be ‘reality’ as Kuln is strikingly lucid. Thoughtfully, the author includes maps to help the reader navigate these new and wondrous lands.
Lastly, it is well worth stating that The Serpent Calls—first published in 2014 but now re-released in a revised edition—will soon be followed up with the second book in the series, Tides of Chaos, due to be published in April 2022.
Here, the greater story will continue as faces both familiar and new continue the fight to save their world from destruction. In total, seven books set within the World of Kuln are planned, with the first three forming a distinct narrative arc.
And for devout fans, of which I’m sure there will be many hereafter, there are also two expanded short stories—The First Vampire and Notes On Dragons—both set in the Kuln universe and available to download for free from the author’s website.
In conclusion, this contemporary entry into the fantasy genre provides pure escapist delight. Netflix et al take note—the World of Kuln is described so vividly that it would be perfect on the big or small screen.
The Serpent Calls by Christopher Bramley (Sanctum Publishing) is out now on Amazon in paperback, priced at £15.99, hardback priced £24.99, and as an eBook, priced £8.99. Tides of Chaos will be published later this year. For more information, visit www.christopherbramley.com.
Q&Q interview with author Christopher Bramley
We speak with neurodiverse author Christopher Bramley about his epic high-fantasy series, beginning with the gripping The Serpent Calls, how his high-functioning autism has helped him craft the ultra-realistic World of Kuln, and the joys of fantasy fiction, both as a reader and writer, among other things.
Q: You have high-functioning autism. How do you think this has helped you as an author?
A: My particular autism is atypical— I’m able to context switch extremely rapidly, with extreme hyperfocus in some things but a really good overview of the horizon in others. This means I can be easily distracted—by outside stimulus, crosswise ideas and so on—but these also spark constant brain activity. One of the things that both helps and hinders me is that my brain never stops processing everything. I have realised this is utterly exhausting, but it means it never stops probing and navigating pathways of a story, either. Add to that an extreme clarity of recall, including dreams, and it’s certainly helped me create some interesting places and scenarios, often on the fly.
Q: Fantasy fiction has a long and distinguished pedigree. Both as an author and reader, what attracts you to this genre?
A:The sheer creativity and passion which drives it, alongside the incredible scope which can be used in speculative fiction. Entire worlds and universes are created, sometimes in incredible detail. As a reader I can become lost in them, marvel at another place and time in pure escapism. Creating such worlds is different—it’s an active glimpse rather than a passive one, and one which I then attempt to relay to others. Sometimes you think of an idea and go, “Oh, that’s cool” and you know it couldn’t be expressed anywhere but this genre; other times it’s as if you’re shown something like a window into another universe, and all you can do is tell what you’ve seen. I suspect some authors are in full control of their worlds. That’s not entirely the case with mine, and I love the fact that both reader and writer can be taken by surprise.
Q: What can readers expect when they enter the World of Kuln?
A: A world which has some similarities to our world and to some other fantasy worlds but in other ways is very different. Stories, cultures, people seem similar, perhaps, but they may not be what you expect. Others will seem utterly fantastic. Readers can also expect a living, breathing, vibrant world with a richness of depth and breadth. I want it to be a real place, somewhere people can see themselves actually being. Lastly, they can expect dragons, and again perhaps somewhat different to usual concept.
Q: You are planning to have seven books in your fantasy series in total, which is a huge undertaking. How do you go about mapping out this series?
A: I have tried (and have miserably failed ) to plan everything tightly, and write a synopsis/plan to follow. Many authors I know succeed like this but, for me, it doesn’t work. I know roughly the overall arc of books one to three (and obviously books one and two in great detail!), how book four bridges, and more nebulously how five to seven will run, with random further ideas. However, although my writing is quite adaptive, there is a huge amount of research and supporting data in place. I have a spreadsheet charting 18.5billion years of universal evolution, so I know how which gods came where and why—and all the cultural/character path dependency aspects actually help me understand why things are a certain way. For example, once I realised I had to work out tectonics and major currents then how some cultures interact or even go to war suddenly made more sense, and the story ‘settled’ over those requirements, rather like a sheet over furniture.
Q: Which is your favourite character in the World of Kuln series to date, and for what reasons?
A: This is really hard to answer. I like so many for so many reasons. I’ve really striven to make them real people, not just facets of myself or my viewpoint. I’m very interested in what other people think, as it’s subjective, but right now I’m going to go with Grukust, who is a very stereotypical strong, silent, proud barbarian type who doesn’t speak well, but whom I have had described to me as an “onion”. He is very self-aware of his own limitations and strengths, and has a level of acceptance and decency I deeply admire. He’s also extremely intelligent, and it’s only because we hear him through the lens of his broken Darum language that he sounds stupid—that, and his racial background with the discrimination it engenders from most people. I find him a fascinating and deep character who slowly reveals layers as we know him better. I honestly didn’t set out to write him like this but he … well, he demanded it as I got to know him better!
Q: Book two in the World of Kuln series, Tides of Chaos, is set for release this Easter. What can you tell us about it?
A: It will be bigger in scope and I’m sure that readers will find it interesting to see how the characters (and how you see them) evolve. It’s a time of flux and major events, and I wanted to explore a little about how normal people experience these things, and the frustrations we have as individuals caught up in them. I also had to come up with an even more epic end than with The Serpent Calls and that took some doing as the its close was pretty epic. I think I managed to make it memorable, though—and the story is not done yet!
Q: What has been the biggest writing challenge you have faced, and how did you overcome it?
A: This has shifted dynamically over time. In the beginning (to coin a phrase), it was struggling to understand how to even approach what was an overwhelmingly nebulous and gigantic undertaking. I always knew that this would be huge and complex; it wasn’t a case of refining an idea so much as weaving multiple disparate ideas together in ways that made sense and didn’t disrupt the core truth. It then became more about understanding and crafting flow; yes, you build it a word at a time, but that doesn’t help the transmission to the reader’s inner eye. Over time, the challenge has now become more logistical—finding time and the headspace/zone to write and edit, along with not letting myself burn out doing it, which is a very real danger for someone who hyperfocuses.
Q: What do you think the secret is to writing effective fantasy fiction?
A: I don’t think there’s any one secret, and it will depend both on the context of the author and story, so the simple answer is probably to find what works for you to write effectively as how you write may not be how I write. Within that, there are five things which I think are crucial.
One, write as much around the story as in it, because this creates that living, breathing world. All the background is your canvas, and you paint the story on top and allow the texture to show through. Just make sure you don’t get too hung up on describing things in excruciating detail!
Two, however much love and care you lavish on this palpable world, the primary focus needs to be the characters moving through it. The more real they are, and the more the reader feels a response to them or identifies with them, the more they will be believable and invested in. They drive the narrative and story.
Three, do your research and crosscheck things—make what you’re writing believable! I said recently in another interview, “I know this sounds funny, but don’t just make stuff up while you are making stuff up!” If you’re pushing the boundaries by speculating, it’s important to make that clear, and nothing breaks escapism faster than something clearly incorrect or feeling like a forced deus ex machina.
Four, write with passion; put a piece of your soul into it. I include dreams and events that I have experienced in my books, because they are part of me. The latte, especially, can make things feel deep and real. A reader desires you to compel them, to engage them through the familiar and the novel. Your passion shows through and inspires others, making them care for what you write. That passion and emotion is critical—you won’t write as well if it’s a chore (and it can be a chore!).
Five, the importance of flow. How the story, events and characters flow becomes as or more important than describing scenes, and the characters themselves. There’s a cadence to building up to a finish which can get lost in long or complicated novels, or vanish into fuzziness in novels where the world is the showcase. All the things I’ve listed previously are vital— the characters being real people, the world being vibrant and living—but if the narrative of events doesn’t flow, you won’t get the beauty and wonder across to the reader, and that is a tragedy. Reading a novel is having a writer taking you on a journey.
Q: Your novels feature a variety of tones and moods. Why was this important to you?
A: I love a huge variety of novels and genres, but I have noticed that many of them adopt a fairly singular tone. We have epic, grim, dark, high, humour, horror, and on – but in real life all of these things happen at different times to us, and I wanted to express how the main character experiences them all. In this case (and going back to flow!), the flow is the story of the main characters and what they encounter, with the humour, sadness, fright, exhaustion, despair, and hope they all feel, rather than the novel itself having an overall tone, and I tried to show that. Being human and real is about having all of these things, and I notice detail, so showing their moments of amusement with each other, or the horror of one of them is important to me. It’s also worth remembering that the stories are mostly from the growing and changing viewpoint of a young boy, and one who experiences things very intensely, so where there is the excitement, fear, and confusion of battle, for example, his focus might narrow quite specifically to the fragility of life as someone he has met is killed, and the emotions or numbness he experiences from that. None of us are any one thing.
Q: Who are your own literary inspirations, and what have you learned from them?
A: So, so many. Terry Pratchett is one of the most influential, but a lot of the greatest writers out there (some of whom I’ve had the honour of meeting) have had a profound effect upon me: Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, David Eddings, Iain. M. Banks, William Gibson, Robert Jordan, Brent Weeks, Harry Harrison, Raymond E. Feist, Tad Williams, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Terry Brooks, Neal Asher, Peter F. Hamilton, Steve Jackson/Sir Ian Livingstone, Jack Cohen, to name but a few. From this interlinked cascade of giants I have learned to let go of my inhibitions and worries about my visions and thoughts and to write what I need to. In fact, the single most important advice was given to me by Neil Gaiman: “Write what the f**k you want”. It really stuck with me, in an industry where writers often try to conform to expectations of the next big thing and not ‘being Tolkien’. I’ve also learned that whilst, of course, new and exciting things are attractive (and this comes up in my work with complex systems as something called the ‘Hawthorne Effect’), that doesn’t mean people don’t love new takes on old concepts, like dragons, elves, dwarves, orcs, humans, angels, and so on. Just look at the work of Tad Williams, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman, to see this.