|Illustration: Dave Semple|
So how on earth did that happen?
It all started about two years ago, when Sam went through a brief trolls'n'goblins phase himself, and I read him The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It reminded me of how much I used to love stories like that when I was growing up, and made me wonder if I could do one of my own. I wasn't really after the high seriousness of Tolkien, though: I was aiming for something lighter and funnier that would be a change of pace for me before I embark on the final Fever Crumb book. So I started writing a long, rambling comedy adventure which I read to Sam in installments as a bedtime story.
One of the things that always troubled me about The Lord of the Rings, even as a boy, was the way that all the orcs and goblins are evil. All of them? It seemed a bit unfair to me: surely there must be some who were just fighting in the armies of the Dark Lord because they'd been conscripted, and would have preferred to lead a quiet life somewhere given half the chance. Even Sam, when we were half way through LOTR, wondered why Sauron wanted to take over Middle Earth. There is no reason, of course; that's just what Dark Lords do, but I thought it might be fun to write about a goblin who starts to ask the same question, and that gave me the idea for the hero of this book, who is a goblin named Skarper.
In the first version, Skarper and his goblin tribe lived in a cave on top of a mountain, and when Skarper was thrown out he set off to seek his fortune and met an ill-assorted bunch of companions who wandered around... and around... and around... Eventually I realised that what this story lacked was one of those PLOTS you hear so much about, so I decided that they were all heading for a sinister ruined fortress which had once been home to an evil enchanter called the Lych Lord. I even found a name for this fortress:
... which I saw on the front of a bus while I was heading into Edinburgh from the airport for the 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival (I've just remembered that it was on THAT VERY SAME EVENING that I first met Sarah McIntyre, so that was definitely an important day).
Once Clovenstone had a name, it started to take shape in my imagination. Soon I realised that it was by far the most interesting thing in my story, and that it would make much more sense if the whole book took place there. Rather than trekking off in search of Clovenstone and reaching it in the final chapters, the story would open there, and the characters would either live there, or arrive in search of treasure and adventure. And of course it wasn't just a fortress any more; it was an entire ruined city, dominated by the black Keep where the long-gone Lych Lord once lived, and by the seven towers which still house the remnants of his savage goblin armies. Here's a not-very-to-scale map which I drew for the front of the book...
Of course, without the Lych Lord to keep them in line, the goblins have become even more savage and feckless - all except for Skarper, who is a bit brighter than the rest. In the old chambers of Clovenstone there are piles of old books and papers, which the goblins call 'bumwipe' and use for wiping their bottoms on (when they remember). From these, Skarper learns to read, and starts to understand and question his world. This annoys King Knobbler, who rules Skarper's tower and has been known to bite the heads off goblins who get a bit too clever. (He looks a bit like this...)
That's how Skarper comes to be thrown out of goblin society (well, catapulted out, actually) and left to fend for himself among the other strange creatures who infest the overgrown ruins of Clovenstone.
There he meets a young would-be hero, Henwyn, who has come to Clovenstone in search of adventures, hoping to rescue Princess Eluned, who is said to be held prisoner by a dreadful giant who makes his lair in one of the old gatehouses. I don't have a picture of Henwyn, but I imagined the giant (and the woods where he lives) as looking rather like this painting by Brian Froud...
Of course, it turns out that the giant isn't quite what he is expecting, and nor is Princess Eluned. But adventures happen to Henwyn and Skarper anyway, for there are always adventures of some sort to be had at Clovenstone. There are marshes and tunnels, woods and water, cloud maidens and catapults, and always some strange new creature just around the corner. I've had a fine old time exploring it, and I hope you will too!
*All Good Booksellers in the UK, that is, where the official publication date is 5th April (though most shops will have stock in by now). Sadly the US edition won't be out until next year.