Paul Kearney Talks Changing Gears and Genres (Guest Post)

Today we have the honour of hosting Paul Kearney, master of all things fantasy - both epic and urban. He's on tour right now supporting the re-release of two of his classic titles with Solaris, and has agreed to stop by and talk a bit about changing gears, genres, scope, and more.

Enjoy . . . and be on the lookout for my reviews, coming soon!


In the course of what I somewhat ambitiously refer to as my career, I have become known as the guy who writes about wars. Armies, navies, struggling nations, geopolitical shenanigans and a cast of thousands. In film terms I am Spartacus.

‘Twas not always thus. In the beginning I wanted to be (again in film terms), Jeremiah Johnson. Or perhaps The Searchers. (Both westerns of course – as an aside, I grew up watching westerns with my father on Sunday afternoons, and they became a lifelong passion with me. I could happily spend hours arguing whether the Duke’s best performance was in The Searchers or Red River. It certainly wasn’t in True Grit.)

Anyway, here I am with Monarchies and the Macht under my belt. And it turns out now I am that guy who does epic fantasy. But my first three books (all republished this year, Ahem), were altogether different in scale and tone. I did end up skirmishing in them, having small-scale sorties, even a migration or two. But by and large what fascinated me in those early days was a central character whom I had placed in a cruel dilemma. In The Way to Babylon, a man kills his beloved wife through an act of carelessness, and subsequently discovers that the fantasy world he created is in fact real – and his dead wife is a character in it. That’s one hell of a maze to run your rat around.

In A Different Kingdom, a young boy forms an intense emotional bond with his girlish aunt, and when she disappears, he resolves to find her. The only problem is that she has disappeared into a world just behind his own, where he’s liable to get himself killed, or lose his soul, or both. Just to tempt him further, I threw into the mix a delightful, dangerous, changeling girl who is not quite human. Now stir up those adolescent hormones, step back and let’s see what he does.

Finally in Riding the Unicorn, (which does not have a unicorn in it, by the way; to those of you who have complained about the misleading nature of the title, I recommend you look up the word metaphor), a middle-aged, brutal wife-slapping alcoholic prison warder is given the chance to be a selfless hero in a world even more violent than his own. That was enormous fun to do, that one. Forget the usual callow neophyte; this hero was a hulk from the broken side of the real world. Dropping him into a fantasy setting was pure joy.

So three books into the aforementioned career, and I’m the guy who does ‘contemporary,’ or even ‘urban’ fantasy (though those terms hadn’t been invented back then – this was twenty years ago.)

(Here the author pauses over the keyboard as the appalling reality sets in; he has been writing books for more than twenty years. He will never again be described as a young writer – or young anything come to that. He stifles a sob, wipes away a manly tear, and gets on with it.) 

The key to the big change in gear for me was very simple; money.

My first three books, while garnering many great reviews, garnered very little in the way of sales.  My then editor, Richard Evans, a lovely, patient man, gave me a little nudge at a very boozy lunch one afternoon, and suggested I give a go to something more epic, more fantasy mainstream as it were. This is before Game of Thrones or any of the other ‘dark’ gritty epics that we all now know and love ever came out. I had a throwaway idea about a fantasy version of the voyages of discovery; Columbus, Magellan and the like. What the heck, I thought; it might be fun.

So here’s the problem. To write about voyages of exploration, you have to have a world to explore. A world, to be believable, must have complexity, verisimilitude, and lots and lots of people. So I began to create one, purely so that Richard Hawkwood’s ships would have something to sail across. And that was it. I was like Brer Rabbit and the tar-baby. The more effort I put into designing this world, the more I became interested in the political mechanics, the wheeling and dealing, the interplay between kingdoms. It sucked me right in. And then along came Corfe.

This broken soldier, mourning his dead wife, fleeing his post, and watching his world burn around him – this character grabbed me and just howled for a big, fat story arc of his own. Poor old Hawkwood and his ships were elbowed to one side, and instead of a series of books about sea-voyages, I began to write a towering epic about the clash of civilisations. Armies appeared; Corfe fought his way through despair into rage, and then full-out military genius. I realised that I enjoyed the macro just as much as the micro. More than that, I conceived an absurd urge to write about battle, and to bring to it everything I possibly could in the way of authenticity.

Before I knew it, the single novel I had intended to write became a trilogy – and then a pentalogy. I was able to saddle up several hobby-horses and ride them into the fray. I was investigating not only the dilemmas which afflict individuals, but the processes which created history itself. And I loved it.

So, I became that guy who writes epic fantasy, who consults maps of his imaginary worlds and writes lists of characters to keep them in order.  It’s not what I intended, but I’m awful glad I chanced across the levers of that particular machine.


A Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney
Solaris (January 28, 2014)

A different kingdom of wolves, woods and stranger, darker, creatures lies in wait for Michael Fay in the woods at the bottom of his family's farm.

Michael Fay is a normal boy, living with his grandparents on their family farm in rural Ireland. In the woods there are wolves; and other things, dangerous things. He doesn’t tell his family, not even his Aunt Rose, his closest friend.

And then, as Michael wanders through the trees, he finds himself in the Other Place. There are strange people, and monsters, and a girl called Cat.

When the wolves follow him from the Other Place to his family’s doorstep, Michael must choose between locking the doors and looking away – or following Cat on an adventure that may take an entire lifetime in the Other Place.

This is Paul Kearney’s masterpiece.


Paul Kearney is the critically-acclaimed author of The Monarchies of God, The Macht, and The Sea Beggars series. He has been long-listed for the British Fantasy Award.

“One of the very best writers of fantasy around” – Steven Erikson 

"Paul Kearney remains one of the most criminally underrated authors working in the genre today." –


  1. Great stuff! The cover for the re-release of A Different Kingdom made my list of favorite science fiction and fantasy book covers of the year and I've been curious about picking it up ever since. All three of these books sound wonderful, congrats on having them re-released with such great cover art.

    Great nod to Jeremiah Johnson. As a kid I stumbled across that movie one afternoon and was completely lost in it. They seemed to replay it often and I managed to catch it several times. It was a movie that surprisingly appealed to kids and adults and I was often pleasantly surprised how many of my friends liked it. Thanks for the great memories, now I need to track that down again!

  2. I have been told that A Different Kingdom may be his best work. As such I am having a hard time deciding between it and starting the Macht books next time I pick up the author.

    1. I'm pretty sure I'll be snagging A Different Kingdom on my bookstore run at lunch today. Sounds way too good to pass up.

    2. I've got both cued up, but I'm planning to hit A Different Kingdom first.


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