By Ellie Scorah
What do we all have in common? It’s a startling question that could spiral off into all sorts of philosophical answers, but in Philip Armstrong’s debut novel The Shadow Prince it is something simpler: our shadows. So what happens when someone is born without a shadow?
Tupilu, a young boy and minor prince, has always felt different, something we can all identify with, but then Tupilu discovers the reason: he does not have a shadow.
Of course, the answer is not so simple, and the discovery is only the beginning of an epic fantasy set in the late Bronze Age, full of all the daemons, warring gods and rich history that one would expect from the genre.
Asking Armstrong the somewhat impossible task of summarising his 823 page novel in three words, he opted for Germanic hyphenated compounds to attempt to cover the book’s scope: ‘Historical-fantasy. Epic-adventure. Friendship.’
The novel’s most striking aspect is its intense world-building. Like J. R. R. Tolkien, a strong influence on the work, Armstrong unapologetically revels in the history of the characters he has created, divulging details of their pasts and significantly lengthening the novel! Although this can distract from the pace of the plot, these details are testament to the amount of time Armstrong has spent creating a full and deeply imagined world.
Set in the late Bronze Age in the ‘forgotten’ Hittite Empire, Armstrong blends detailed research on the period with his own imagination.
And his imagination is certainly extensive! It is easy to tell that Armstrong is very at home in the world he has created. Evocative descriptions and brief mentions of folk-tales he himself has created, provide a background to the epic adventure. Armstrong even did the ‘very Tolkienian thing’ of compiling a 60 page dictionary of Atalan, a language he has invented himself.
Tolkien’s influence on the novel, quite apart from his status as a fantasy writer, is somewhat due to Armstrong’s own academic interest in Tolkien’s work. While studying for a PhD at Durham University, Armstrong wanted to ‘give something back’ to the writer that had given him so much pleasure, and to help lift some of the academic snobbery dismissing Tolkien’s work. It even led to Armstrong’s rather wonderful nickname ‘Doctor of Hobbitry’.
Both growing up in Durham and studying here, the area has had a lasting impression on Armstrong’s approach to place. Armstrong describes how ‘you can feel those centuries of reverence seeping out of the [Cathedral’s] stones’. It is clear to see how growing up near such an impressive Cathedral might help one understand the importance of monumental architecture in the Bronze Age.
Armstrong’s second novel The Isles of Winter, a sequel to The Shadow Prince, features landscape more familiar to Durham. Set in the British Isles, the woods and forests are more recognisable, and also more central to the narrative.
For Armstrong, with his intense research (including learning the incredibly useful skill of making mudbricks) and extensive maps, writing is an immersive experience. He even writes with ear-plugs in, ‘to divorce [himself] from the real world’.
While his world is meticulously created and has a well-planned history, Armstrong’s plotting often becomes more instinctive. ‘Plotting, for a project as vast as this one, […] takes a lot of work’. He admits: ‘My subconscious, I think, has a greater idea of where we’re going than I do’. Indeed, with the already large novel being part of an even larger series, The Chronicles of Tupiluliuma, it is hard to imagine having complete control of such a lengthy plot!
Philip Armstrong is currently proof-reading The Isles of Winter, which is so vast that it will actually be released in two volumes, and the third part of the series The Towers of Wilusa is already underway. In a market that is ferociously consuming G. R. R. Martin’s lengthy Game of Thrones series, it seems Armstrong might be onto something.
Besides the series, Armstrong has also written the screenplay for a historical feature film The Red King about ‘the unexplained elements surrounding the death of King William Rufus in 1100’. Armstrong is even leaving his keyboard for a while to play the part of Flambard, who he relishes in calling ‘one of the most disreputable men ever to be Bishop of Durham’.
It is clear, then, that for Philip Armstrong, the past is both an incredible creative influence and an imaginative escape, and it is perhaps for this that one would read The Shadow Prince.
For more information on Philip Armstrong and The Chronicles of Tupiluliuma, visit his website here.
Images: Gareth Cooper, Philip Armstrong