I'm comfortable in my craft, but once in a while I come across a story I wish I had written. Enter, The First of Shadows, book 1 of the Riven Realm, by Canadian novelist, Deck Matthews. This thoroughly engrossing book has all the elements of a great fantasy story: flawed but compelling characters, crisp and vivid writing, and a rich world I wanted to get lost in.
The First of Shadow begins as all good story’s do, with a mysterious drifter and a damned good fight that almost kills our protagonist. As the story unfolds, we learn he’s a man who’s as much the hunted as the hunter in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. Yet, Deck’s Drifter is not without name or purpose or past, and despite his strength and power he seeks help from the son of an old acquaintance.
Decks’ world, Varkas is rich and fully developed. Like all good fantasy settings, its a living, breathing force. Yet, he knows precisely how much — and how little to write. I loathe throat clearing, which is why I prefer novellas, and Deck’s done a masterful job in unveiling his world without the horrendous exposition dumps that plagues our genre.
Oh, and Deck’s illustrated it with a wonderful map too! I know only too well how hard creating a good fantasy map is, and Deck (who does his own designs), makes it look effortless.
For a novella, its scope is quite large with multiple characters in motion. As such, and I can’t believe I’m saying this as a novella writer myself, the story certainly could have benefited from more. Deck’s style and compelling, fully realised characters lends its to the ensemble approach favoured by the like of Joe Abercrombie and George Martin. It’s not a criticism at all, rather I can’t wait to see what Matthews does with a full novel with more headroom to explore his world and characters.
Nevertheless, Matthews has plenty of respect for the shorter format, and he does a brilliant job in bringing the threads together. He's absolutely an author I recommend for lovers of heroic fantasy with a little grit and grim, so if you enjoyed Cadoc's Contact and The Weaver's Boy — and could do without my fondness for sex and bad language — please check out The First of Shadows!
Interview with Deck Matthews
After reading The First of Shadows and picking it for my inaugural edition of Rosser’s Reads, I had the pleasure of interview Deck about his writing, faith and the world of Varkas.
CR: Firstly, tell us a little about yourself. What is your background?. What do you write and what got you started on your writing journey in the first place?
My name is Deck Matthews… well my pen name anyhow. I’m a Canadian author, just starting out on my publishing career. As far as what I write, it’s what I like to call heroic fantasy. I’m building a world called Varkas, with the intention of authoring a range of interconnected stories.
I’ve always liked to write. As a kid, I’d go through phases dabbling at this and that. I started a story about a boy and his dog when I was 8 or 9, and always enjoyed storytelling in school. I think what really pushed me over that line, however, was when my eighth grade teacher gave me a collection of David Eddings books. Starting with Queen of Sorcery, I devoured them over the summer.
It was over those months that I came to the realization that this is what I really wanted to do.
I’ve come a long way since then. I’ve read a lot, and learned a lot. I wouldn’t really compare my current work to Eddings, but I’m sure if you look close enough, you’ll find nuggets here and there.
CR: You make a moving acknowledgement to your faith in First of Shadows. How do your religious beliefs and practices inform your storytelling and world-building? Does it help, or do you find it confronting to explore different belief systems?
Thanks for reading the acknowledgements! My faith is a huge part of my life. It’s something that’s carried me through some tough times, and shaped me into the man I am today. I truly believe I’m a better person for it.
As for how it impacts my writing, well that’s an interesting question. I supposed I can point to two basic principles that I adhere to. No sex. No extreme vulgarities (you’ll notice a pronounced lack of f-bombs compared to a lot of contemporary work).
What I’m not doing is writing allegory; Varkas is no Narnia. I’m not setting out to transpose the stories of my faith. That being said, I’d be naive to believe that those stories don’t influence me, and that certain themes won’t naturally work their way into my stories. Hope. Love. Sacrifice. Redemption. These are all themes and ideas that I understand through the lens of my faith. Some of that is bound to make its way into my work.
As for other belief systems, I have no issue exploring them at all. In fact, I find it really interesting. I studied literature in university, but I also did a minor in the study of religion and culture. Creating the different belief systems in Varkas has been extremely interesting!
CR: You write in a rich, and evocative style that I found immensely enjoyable to read. I know hard work when I see it and can tell you've agonised over your craft. How do you go about refining and improving your style?
I read. I honestly believe it’s the single most important thing for any writer—especially for those looking to build a career as an author. There’s so much to learn in the prose of others. Sometimes, it’s a matter of finding what works; other times, it’s a matter of finding what doesn’t. But digging into prose with a critical eye is biggest thing for me.
Beyond that, it’s just practice, practice, practice. Logging hour after hour of stringing words into sentences, only to tear them apart and stitch them back together. I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I’d even be lying if I said I always enjoyed it. I don’t always love the process. If I’m being honest, sometimes it leaves me worn down or beaten up.
I have thousands and thousands and thousands of words that will never grace a printed page or a the screen of an e-reader. But every discarded word or forgotten sentence has been a part of the journey. I’ve learned along the way, and I’m a better writer for it.
I’ve learned to be ruthless with myself, and to always remember that I married my wife, not my writing! If a beloved sentence doesn’t serve a purpose, cut it. If an entire chapter is wrong, cut it.
Last year, when I was in the midst of pulling together The First of Shadows, I made myself a background for my phone. Now, every time I open my home screen I see three simple words:
Just do the work.
In my experience, that’s the only way to get better.
CR: I was intrigued by the riggers and their ships in First of Shadows. You've done a great job in blending elements of steampunk with traditional fantasy. Can you tell us a little more about these elements of your world, and why you chose this approach?
Interesting! Honestly, there was no conscious effort of blending steampunk into my world. The wind riders evolved fairly organically as a concept. My world-building starts in a very organic way. When I started Varkas, I just sat down and started writing.
One of the concepts that came out of those very early writings was the Flameborn: people who can perform these powerful evocations that allow them to manipulate elemental forces. As I was writing about that, I found myself thinking about wind, and then these things called wind carriages. Later, as the world evolved, I changed the name because I felt that carriage was just a little too pretentious for what I wanted from them, but that’s pretty much where they came from.
But now that you mention it, I’m starting to realize that there are a few other pieces here and there that could potentially be considered steampunk-esque. But I can’t speak too much to those yet as there’s still a lot under development!
CR: What are you working on now? Have you got something nearing release that you'd like to tell us about?
Sometimes, I feel like I’m working on about a thousand different things.
First, I have two follow-ups to The First of Shadows in the works. Dust of the Darkness should drop late spring or early summer, with a third volume following shortly thereafter (I’m still working on a title). Beyond that, I have a handful of short stories in various states of completion, and I’ve also started the very, very early stages of what should be a full-length novel that will delve into some of the backstory.
Oh, and there might be a graphic novel in the works.
CR: Finally, where's the best place people can go to find out more about you and your books?
The Varkas Chronicles website is varkaschronicles.com. It’s still pretty bare-bones at the moment, but it contains all of my published works, and will contain news about upcoming works as well. I also have plans to build out a codex for readers to reference if they want to know more about various parts of the world. The initial parts of that should be coming in April or May of this year.
Thank you so much to Deck for taking the time for the interview. He’s a great guy and a terrific writer. The First of Shadows is my pick for March 2019, and it will go in the running for my ‘Best Read of 2019’, which I’ll announce in December.