Thursday, 18 April 2019

#BlogTour The Fire Priest by Stephen Murdoch

Today it's my turn on the Blog Book Tour for The Fire Priest (Pawns of the God #1). It's the melded worlds of fantasy, magic, mythology and even historical fiction with a coming-of-age element to it. There is a great Q&A with Stephen Murdoch for you to enjoy, my review, and a chance to win a copy of The Fire Priest.

Don't forget to enter the Rafflecopter Giveaway below at the bottom of this post to win a copy of The Fire Priest.

About the Author
Stephen Murdoch is a writer and investor who lives in England with his wife and three daughters. He is the author of the non-fiction book IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea (Wiley, 2007). He has written for various publications, including Newsweek, The Washington Post, and PRI’s Marketplace. The Fire Priest is his first work of fiction. Murdoch is the chairman of two healthcare providers in the UK that provide cutting edge digital and bricks-and-mortar solutions to the mental health sector.

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About the book
Seventeen-year-old Jack Kulinski is the best mixed martial arts fighter of his generation. So why does fighting scare him so much? In the ring, the sound of swarming bees mysteriously fills his head, and it takes all of his effort to not flee in panic. But when his best friend disappears, and Jack, alone, discovers that he’s been magicked to a terrible land ruled by a murderous god and his violent people, he needs to learn how to face his fears and to fight better than he ever has before.

Before we get down to business (i.e. talking about your book) I would like to ask a set of questions I call 'Breaking the Ice.'

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know)
I’ve just finished On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood, by Irmgard Hunt. I really enjoy memoirs that involve important and compelling issues. The first person, story-telling format makes the content so much more accessible. In this book, Hunt illustrates how and why average Germans (including her parents) supported someone as awful as Hitler. The facts of the history are well-known: the Germans suffered terrible poverty and inflation in the 1920s, making people more receptive to a strong man who made promises, and to some extent delivered. But, for me, the details of Hunt’s story as she goes from young girl in the Hitler Youth to growing scepticism makes the history all the more understandable. She loved her mother and father, and they were a loving family, who happened to be Nazi supporters. Her story explains how such a thing is possible.

I think it’s important to read this kind of material as a writer of fantasy fiction, which often involves the violent clash of good versus evil. First of all, people who commit terrible acts and support evil movements almost always believe they are good people in a righteous cause. To write an “evil” character involves understanding why that person believes he or she is helping the world and doing the right thing. In The Fire Priest, one tribe of people have dominated their continent for 300 years, enslaved other tribes, and often sacrificed people they consider “other” to their god. There were many times when I was writing the story when I thought, hang on a second, is this too outlandish? Surely a people wouldn’t act so terribly for 300 years! But sadly I think it’s entirely possible. The bulk of Germans only started to lose faith in the Nazis when the war stopped going well for them. If the Third Reich had been successful for longer who knows how long the people would have supported them? When people believe something as a group, and constantly reinforce their beliefs through laws, customs, and religion, they can do terrible things. Fantasy fiction should be otherworldly, but still ring true, and part of what The Fire Priest is doing is exploring evil perpetrated by an entire people under the rule of religious leaders. 

Writers or books who have inspired you to put pen to paper?
There are so many excellent writers and we readers are overwhelmed by the number of good books out there. It’s why I think you should put a book down in the first 20-30 pages if it doesn’t work for you. There are too many good ones out there to waste your time on ones that don’t grab you. 

My tastes have changed over the years, and who has inspired me and who I’d want to meet varies depending on what age we’re talking about. Right now, at the age of 51, I’d probably want to meet the great non-fiction writer Michael Lewis (Flash Boys, Moneyball, The Big Short, and others). He can convey ideas in a way that renders them a joy to consume, and he writes about compelling issues of the day with narrative ability. He’s very good at reporting and writing, which I think is rare. Often non-fiction writers and journalists are better at one or the other. 

But back when I was a teenager, for sure I would have wanted to meet Michael Moorcock. (Okay, I’ll be honest: I’d still love to meet the man.) He definitely inspired me to become a writer, and especially his Elric/eternal champion series. I read a lot of him as a teenager, and probably only had a vague sense of his abilities and breadth. Moorcock wrote for and was an editor for magazines (Tarzan Adventures, when he was just a teenager!), wrote fantasy and “speculative” fiction novels, edited anthologies, wrote higher-brow literature, and even played in bands. The short of it is that I’m intimidated and impressed by a writer like Moorcock. He told bold stories fearlessly and famously wrote novels in less than a week at 15,000 words a day. To be so confident and be able to turn on the creative juice like that is just stunning. 

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about The Fire Priest (Pawns of the Gods).

It’s fair to say that The Fire Priest is quite an ambitious piece of fiction. The two worlds collide with the present, with history and the two main characters evolve and transform during the reading experience.

Tell us about your inspiration for The Fire Priest.
At a basic level, I wanted to take two young relatable Californians (Jack and his friend, Denny) and put them in very stressful, otherworldly circumstances. I thought it would make them sympathetic and it’s simply a good starting point for a novel that holds your attention. But I also just like gateway fantasy, wherein characters from our world are taken to a very different world. This can be terribly clich├ęd, so I worried over the mechanism for taking the characters to the world of Tal’alli. Ultimately, the characters have to get there somehow, so hopefully readers who like this sub-genre are receptive to its tropes.

Through the structure of the story I tried to make Jack and Denny’s journey to Tal’alli mysterious, but as the characters begin to understand the new world the reader does, as well. Hopefully, I haven’t made it downright confusing and inaccessible at the beginning of the story; I thought there was a fine balance between creating curiosity and confusion in the reader. But it’s a fun one if I’ve got it right.

One of the elements of the story I was interested in was Jack and his ability or lack of ability to fight, despite proving his ability to do so at an earlier point in time. Was proving himself and facing his insecurities an important part of his development as a character?
Most definitely there’s something going on with Jack’s relationship to fighting. He has a struggle within himself that must be resolved before he can fight to the best of his abilities. He isn’t aware of his inner struggle, though. He is in terrifying circumstances and a tremendously gifted fighter, so his innate strengths and outer obstacles are well matched, even if he doesn’t think so. Belief in oneself can either be a tired or evergreen theme of Hollywood movies, but there’s a reason why it so often resonates: it comports resoundingly with our own lives. So many of us are overly hard on ourselves, which doesn’t help because all too often the world is keen to join in. Plus, young men, in particular, are often angry. I remember the feeling myself. At some stage, self-criticism and anger must morph into something healthier and more productive. Jack, like the rest of us, is on that journey.

You have drawn upon the Mesoamerican culture and religion for the world the boys become involved in. Why Mesoamerican, what about it spoke to you so much it ended up determining the direction of your story?
Mesoamerican religion hasn’t been drawn upon much in American fiction, but if an author is looking for tension it is ripe subject matter. For me, Aztec religious violence—mainly the sacrifice—was a starting point. The main Aztec god Tezcatlipoca was both a creator and a destroyer, and most certainly terrifying. In The Fire Priest, I very roughly based Lord Tezca on him, but dropped the creator aspect of his character. Lord Tezca is singularly voracious and greedy. The more he consumes the more he wants, and his people must feed him or suffer consequences. I did this purposefully. People create the religions that they want to; their beliefs are a reflection of themselves. The idea that Jesus Christ wants us to be successful in business is a decidedly 20th century American idea. Fourteenth Century European priests didn’t preach to their congregated peasants that Jesus wanted them to become rich. The Innu’chat, the dominant tribe of the world Jack is taken to, have pushed their religion in the direction of dominance and violence, because that has been a successful strategy for them. But ultimately, people get to choose who, how, and whether they worship, no matter what priests tell them and this is an undercurrent of The Fire Priest. 

There is much ado made about the difference between Jack the awkward and plain one, and Denny the incredibly handsome one. Without revealing any spoilers, the balance is switched a little later in the book. Is that a subliminal message about inner/outer beauty and self-worth?
Most certainly. I think this theme arose in the story naturally for me. I was born and raised in Southern California, where looks are given a premium. Of course, looks are valued everywhere, and that’s not a terrible thing, but some cultures value them more than others, and I’d say that California comes high on that list. I also think it’s common for boys to objectify girls (everywhere!), and for very beautiful girls to become defined by their looks, even by their own measure. I turned this slightly on its head by making Denny gorgeous, and self-defined by this, which surely is rarer for a boy simply because society doesn’t emphasize it as much. At the beginning of the story, he’s not motivated in school, isn’t an athlete, and doesn’t have many interests beyond being handsome, dating girls, and being Jack’s best friend (who has currency, in Denny’s mind, because of his phenomenal fighting ability). But it’s dangerous for people to be defined by one thing, whether it’s looks, money, professional standing, or athletic prowess. The monomaniacal focus renders them boring for a start, but if that one, all-important thing is taken away they are in serious trouble. Physical beauty, in particular, whatever amount we’ve got, gets taken from us all as we age. Something happens to Denny in The Fire Priest and he is only at the beginning of thinking about it. 

This is the first book in the Pawns of the Gods series, what comes next in the series and when can we expect book two?
I’m quite close to being finished with the second book, which is currently called The Priest Slayer. Maybe I shouldn’t say this as, obviously, I’m trying to promote The Fire Priest at the moment, but I think it’s better than the first book. Perhaps a smoother way of saying that is if you liked The Fire Priest, you’ll like the The Priest Slayer even more. Ha! The Fire Priest was my first novel, though, and for most of us mortals (I’m sure Michael Moorcock aside) there’s a whole heap of learning that goes into that. In the second book the characters develop more, I’m better with perspective switches and the pacing in general. What’s more, the world of Tal’alli changes dramatically, allowing me to explore and develop it more, which was fun. 

Thank you for answering all of my questions, especially the odder ones!
I’m a middle-aged man who sits alone in his office thinking about magic. Odd is my familiar. 

This is an ambitious piece of fantasy fiction, which has plenty of potential and room for development. The human world is drawn into a world of demons, sacrifice and a land governed by a ruthless violent god.

When I say the human world it's actually two teenage boys, Jack and Denny, who happen to catch the eye of the fire priest and priestess. They want to use the two unassuming lads for their own nefarious plans. These two worlds collide with the present, with history and the two main characters evolve and transform during the reading experience from carefree teenagers to young men willing to fight for themselves and others to destroy evil.

Jack is supposedly the best mixed martial arts fighter of his generation, except lately he keeps losing. As soon as he enters the ring he lacks concentration, determination and in general just an instinct to win. There is something going on that he is unaware of, perhaps an inner battle of self-doubt or whether he should be using his talents for something more worthwhile.

What's interesting about Denny is the correlation the author draws between his physical appearance and his worth or the way his treated and the way people react to him because of it, and what happens when that element is taken away. It's a thought to ponder on.

I'm not going to go into all of the characters, despite how interesting a certain one is and how much I would love to pick their persona and role in this story completely apart bit by bit. *Cough cough Uncle Rabbit* Keep your eye on the rabbit. Just saying.

Murdoch draws upon the Mesoamerican culture and religion for his story, especially the more volatile aspects of the Aztec religion. Sacrifice and violence play an important role in this book. In a way he has incorporated a coming-of-age element into this story of melded worlds of fantasy, magic, mythology and even historical fiction. I wonder how much bolder the sequel will be.

Buy The Fire Priest (Pawns of the Gods #1) at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer. Buy at, BarnesandNoble, Indiebound, BookDepository.

Enter the Rafflecopter Giveaway below to win a copy of The Fire Priest by Stephen Murdoch
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*Terms and Conditions - This giveaway is for 3 winners choice of one print or ebook copy of the book, open worldwide. This giveaway ends May 10, 2019, midnight pacific time. Entries are accepted via Rafflecopter only.*

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