Book - The Keep Within

With his latest fantasy novel The Keep Within out now, thanks to Titan Books, read this exclusive article, written just for us by author J L Worrad, about where the story for it came from...

“It’s not just the one book,” came my agent Max’s voice down the phone. “It’s a two-book deal.”

“That’s incredible,” I said, the seed of a sequel already rattling about in my skull.

“They’re asking for a standalone fantasy,” he replied. “Same world, ideally.”

This, dear reader, is the epitome of the expression ‘a good problem to have’. My novel, Pennyblade, would be published by the highly respected Titan Books and as if that wasn’t wonderful enough my heroic agent had scored me a second stab at publication. Trouble was, what the heck was I stabbing at? Like every fantasy author I had piles of ideas for sequels. Pennyblade could happily go on for a trilogy, hell, a decalogy even, though I imagine concerned friends would intercede should that ever happen. But a standalone? One set in the same world but with new people? I’d never considered the notion.

The same but different. This was my sudden mantra, my way forward. This sequel would share the same world of course, a world I had invented as I went along, or should I say, as Pennyblade’s protagonist, Kyra, went along, with new places and cultural details emerging into existence as and when needed. I will fight anyone in whatever pseudo-medieval style of combat they chose who says this approach to worldbuilding is inferior to spending months or years crafting away at a world. It is not inferior. It is just different. Inventing the setting as your narrative proceeds is sort of like laying down train tracks as your engine steams along at top speed, it forces an author’s brain to free associate and throw up mad, outré and, yes, brilliant ideas that a more premeditating brain would never countenance. Thus, I would improvise again, though this time around many things were written in stone (well, ink) now that Pennyblade had been released.

In Pennyblade, Kyra passes through a city called Becken-On-Brint which she happens to mention has a ginormous and ugly-looking keep. I would discover who lived inside the thing. I had some idea; there was mention of Becken having at least three queens. Now there was something I could work with. Three queens sharing the same castle seemed ripe for a little rivalry and intrigue. Indeed, I’m surprised it’s never been used as the premise for some reality show.

Pennyblade is the tale of a journey. This new book, this second standalone fantasy novel (that’s genuinely what it’s called in the contract I signed, I kid you not) wouldn’t go very far at all geographically speaking. There would be the royal court up in their keep and the people in the streets of the city. This is hardly a revolutionary premise for a fantasy novel. Ellen Kushner’s divine Swordspoint did it decades ago. Those some awesome giant’s shoulders to be standing on and it lent me confidence to proceed.

Now, logically, I would need a main character who could travel between gilded halls and filthy alleys, who could flutter about in both worlds with ease. He popped into my brain while I was in the shower, which is a common enough thing to happen to any fiction writer but never gets any less socially awkward for either party. My protagonist, Sir Harry Larksdale, would be a bastard brother of the king, one who would rather spend his time running an open-air theatre down in the city.

This sudden insertion of theatres and theatre-men into a medieval fantasy novel warped my plans. You see, my previous novel has a roughly twelfth century European feel. But once you start placing the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of crowds into a fantasy you can’t help but visualise Shakespeare’s theatre of the sixteenth century. It’s insidious I tell you. Before you know it, your longswords and great-helms give way to rapiers and ruffs. I fought against it at first but I eventually faced facts: this new novel would have to occur centuries after the last one. All daydreams of MCU-style crossovers and cameos evaporated. Every character from Pennyblade would be long dead by the events of this new tale.

A standalone fantasy. The term had become far more accurate than I ever knew when I set out. But that’s the way of stories. They have to be true to themselves in order to become true storytelling to the reader. It is a poor parent who stands in the way of that, despite their own wishes.

And so The Keep Within came to be. 

Many thanks to J L Worrad and Titan Books for this fascinating insight into writing The Keep Within. 

The book is available now.

About The Keep Within

Packed with unforgettable characters, sharp wits, and wild plots, a bastard noble with dreams of the theatre and the ruthless first-queen are both caught up in a tangled web of murder and court intrigue in this savagely funny dark fantasy.

When Sir Harrance ‘Harry’ Larksdale, bastard brother of the king, falls for a mysterious lad from the mountains, he is unwillingly caught up in a chaotic world of court intrigue and murderous folk tales. Meanwhile Queen Carmotta Il’Lunadella, First-Queen of the Brintland, needs to save her life and her unborn child. With the Third-Queen plotting against her, and rumours of coups rocking the court, Carmotta can rely only on her devious mind and venomous wit.

But deep within the walls of Becken Keep squats the keep-within - patient, timeless, and evil. To speak of the keep-within outside the walls of Becken Keep guarantees your bizarre and agonising demise within nine days. All the while, people fearfully whisper the name Red Marie: a bloodied demon with rusted nails for teeth and swinging scythes who preys on the innocent.

Harry and Carmotta are clinging to their dreams, their lives, by threads. And, beneath all, the keep-within awaits.

Images - Titan Books

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