My name is David Lee Stone, and I wrote The Illmoor Chronicles series of comic fantasy books for Disney in the USA, Hodder in the UK and for a variety of major publishers around the world (including the BBC and Sony in Japan). At the time of the first book’s release, British magazine SFX gave ‘The Ratastrophe Catastrophe’ five stars and SF Revu were kind enough to describe as the work of ‘the natural heir to Terry Pratchett’. This description statement – which was used by Hodder as a banner for the series – caused quite a lot of discussion and argument among Discworld fans and those younger readers of my own books and I found myself forced to defend both my invented world and also the way in which I went about creating it. Here’s the story of how it all went down and also the story of how one (then twelve-year-old) fan of Terry Pratchett became a short-lived alternative to the world’s most talented author.
My first ever short story ‘The Dulwich Assassins’, appeared in the anthology above with Terry and Tom Sharpe, but I almost wasn’t a writer of comic fantasy. It nearly didn’t happen.
I first read Terry’s book Eric when I was twelve years old. I was a huge fan of Fighting Fantasy, and I’d gone into town to get the 50th FF book, Return to Firetop Mountain, but they’d put the price up to £3.99 and I only had £2.99 in my pocket. That meant I either had to go home and spend a Saturday on my own with nothing to entertain me, or I was going to need to find a book to read: an actual book.
I’d never read a book at this point: I was just into game-books. Books, to me, were boring things, difficult to concentrate on and almost impossible to stay with for more than a few pages.
I’d always been attracted to Discworld because of the incredible covers, all brightly illustrated by the late Josh Kirby….but to actually read one seemed a bit beyond me. Then I realized, that Eric, the smallest of all the Discworld books, was probably the only title in WH Smith’s that was under £3 to buy.
I had no choice.
I bought it. It’s no secret that reading Terry Pratchett changed my life and made me want to be a writer, just like him. In the next few weeks, I read everything Terry had ever written, and you have to remember that he was only up to Lords and Ladies at that point, so it wasn’t the vast library that Discworld has now become.
After Terry Pratchett, I read everything by Douglas Adams, Rob Grant & Doug Naylor, Tom Sharpe – anything funny and fantastic. Then I noticed something; Terry Pratchett didn’t seem to have any actual rivals….not really. There was Tom Holt, a great writer but one that didn’t really work in his own ‘world’ so to speak; it was contemporary comic fantasy that he wrote.
No, the only actual rivals for Terry were comparatively short lived. Piers Anthony’s Xanth in the USA and Craig Shaw Gardner, another American both had a decent following (especially Anthony), but here in the UK there was nobody.
I realized that this was because there was a definite feeling of loyalty and protective aggression directed by a lot of the Discworld fans I knew about any new authors who appeared. In the time I spent among a vast majority of Discworld fans, I was decently shocked to discover that new UK writers like Andrew Harman (Firkin), James Bibby (Ronan the Barbarian) and – later – Martin Scott (Thraxas) were largely ignored by or, in worst cases, had their work shredded by the Terry Pratchett fan-base. This fact seemed insane to me, and actually made me more determined to write the sort of comic fantasy that debuted in a big way.
I have been accused, over the years, of being second best to Terry Pratchett, a poor man’s Terry Pratchett, a Discworld plagiarist, a Terry Pratchett for beginners and even – I think one guy said – a guy who is desperately trying to BE Terry Pratchett’.
Let’s be honest, here: Terry Pratchett is, in my opinion, the greatest writer on the planet, past or present….so being accused of trying to be like the best is like saying, well, that WWE wrestlers like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan shouldn’t bother because they’re never going to emulate the career strength of the Undertaker or Shaun Michaels.
You try to be the best. That’s what you do.
As for plagiarism, I’m afraid not: Illmoor is completely my own. It does draw inspiration from Pratchett’s Discworld. Of course it does; he’s the master of the field I’ve chosen to work in. It also draws heavy inspiration from Ian Livingstone’s Port Blacksand with its various guilds (which I encountered before Ankh Morpork), Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser), Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (Headmaster D’eath and his cohorts are in the same vein as the Unseen University faculty) and even Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue (where the faculty are, again, akin to those at UU)….but then a lot of inspiration has been drawn from these creative writers over the years, by myself and by others.
Terry was the first to create a purely comical set of plotlines based in a fantasy environment. There had been humorous fantasy around beforehand, but the likes of Lord Dunsay, GK Chesterton and Avram Davidson were always on the borderlands and never directly joking with the readers. Elsewhere, Tom Sharpe and Douglas Adams displayed the same powers of comic genius that made Terry such an icon, but did so in contemporary fiction and SF respectively.
In no other field do the fans regularly insist that rivals shouldn’t be on the shelves. How many Tolkien clones appeared after Lord of the Rings. Some of the them are very good, but if they’d all asked themselves whether they were ever going to reach the heights of the master, the man who created and forged the best of their field, most of them would have given up…and we wouldn’t have the epic fantasy books and certain world-conquering TV series (wink wink) that we do right now.
If you’ve READ Discworld and you love Terry Pratchett as much as I do, nobody is ever going to come close to matching him in terms of wit, language and sheer brilliance of creativity, but should you ignore all the rest of us comic fantasy authors because of this?
No: you really shouldn’t.
Thraxas is full of mystery and intrigue, Xanth is vast, sprawling and chaotically whimsical, Ronan is frequently hilarious and the Ebenezum, Myth and Firkin series are vital for anyone who wants to explore the endless depths of laughter and amusement that comic fantasy at its best can provide.
Then there’s Illmoor: my own series. It’s been a gateway for teenagers to move on to Discworld, it’s been enjoyed by girls because of its strong female characters and it’s regularly listed among the funniest books on the favourite lists of both children and adults at Amazon. People tend to like the trilogy that starts with Dwellings Debacle the most, but the standalone ones are worth checking out, even if it’s just to have a bloody good laugh – because we all like that.
So….let’s sum up. If you like your comic fantasy packed full of one-liners and quick fire jokes, head for Asprin, Gardner, Bibby. If you like the darker humour and lots of shadowy streets and conspiracy plots, check out Thraxas or my last three Illmoor Chronicles. If you want to stuff to make you think while you’re laughing, or laugh while you’re thinking, go with Xanth.
These are all cousins to Discworld. If you think that this is some kind of pitch against Terry or against Discworld, remember that – without the personal encouragement of Terry, who originally wrote back to me when I was 16 and about to give up, and told me to carry on because ‘the ones with the Duracell Batteries last longer’, I would never have a career in writing and be doing it full time now.
Read what you enjoy, but be willing to explore and expand your library. You might be surprised what’s out there.