The Fifth Ward: First Watch

Today, my new novel The Fifth Ward: First Watch hits bookstore shelves. This is my first work for a major international publisher, and the experience of getting it ready for launch has been a dream come true. While the basic pitch is easy enough—it’s Lethal Weapon meets Lord of the Rings; The Wire in Middle Earth—I’d like to offer some insight into just what moved me to tell this story and what some of my hopes and intentions were.

Basically, First Watch was born of a single, simple idea: in a world full of magic and crazy creatures, who keeps the peace on the streets? It all began as an idle thought about day to day life in Minas Tirith, as portrayed in the film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—this huge, beautiful city that spiraled up a mountainside, it’s highest point thousands of feet above its base. Something about that image—a tiered city with a single winding road heading toward the top—just tickled my imagination. Was there an economic pecking order in Minas Tirith? Did the poor folks all live on the lower tiers while the knights and priests got houses nearer the palace of Denethor, up top? Who had to carry all the food stores and furniture up to Denethor’s pad on the peak?  Did shit truly (as the old proverb insists) roll downhill? And what about the city’s nightwatchmen or police force? Did those guys really have to walk uphill every damn day on their beats?

As often happens with story ideas, the idle questions started to create pictures . I saw a big, sprawling city with narrow, winding streets, choked with smoke and fog, the stink of a pre-industrial world and the sounds of a hundred different spoken languages. I imagined a place that drew all sorts, from all quarters (providing there wasn’t some earth-shattering war underway over an eldritch gizmo of power). Elves might come to town in search of raw materials for their lovely arts. Dwarves might come to trade their gems and their metalworks. Orcs might pass through in search of a good brawl or to barter pelts and such that they collected in the wild. And, of course, there was mankind: more numerous than the other races, but still feeling squeezed between them. How did they all get along when sides weren’t chosen? When a Dark Lord wasn’t threatening all of creation? Were all those races just what the popular imagination made of them—beautiful elves, industrious dwarves, bloodthirsty orcs–or could they all be more than that, if only someone took the time to find out?  And what kind of men—or elves, or dwarves, or even orcs—might walk those streets every night trying to maintain the peace, and keep everyone from killing each other?

And there it was. How much fun might it be to take a worm’s eye view of a fantasy world? What constituted a crime in a world where everyone wears a sword or carries an ax and skulls get cleaved on an everyday basis? How were each of the races corrupt? Misunderstood? Human, even? And, in world where heroes often came from epic poems, or from histories of great wars or quests for mystical MacGuffins, what might two everyday heroes look like? Two guys, just trying to pay the rent, put food on the table, and keep a couple hundred-thousand closely-packed souls from killing one another?

The story literally built itself, in my head, over the course of a single afternoon. The drifter, Rem, waking up in a dungeon and not sure how he got there. The dwarf, Torval: belligerent, bellicose—but also in need of a real friend. The wards and their rivalries. The watch, constantly underfunded and undermanned. The city lights on a foggy night. The traffic in illicit drugs and black market magic. It all fell into place, just because I was daydreaming about the socio-economic strata of a city from a book (and movie) that didn’t even exist.

This is the magic of storytelling: asking what if? Then, asking what next?

First Watch is available now from Orbit books. If you dare a visit to Yenara, be sure and let me know how you found it, and if you’d ever go back again. I myself might be spending a lot of time there in years to come.

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