Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My novels #15: The Blood Red Army

FIENDS OF THE EASTERN FRONT: The Blood Red Army [Black Flame, 2006]

Russian casualties are dying to get back into the war...

Leningrad, 1942: Winter has halted the Nazi invasion of Russia, but the city is still besieged by German troops. Red Army soldiers and civilians are starving to death, but they refuse to surrender. As night falls on Leningrad, the Russians are horrified to their comrades riding from the dead to join the attack against them.

One of the bloodiest conflicts in World War II is the backdrop for all-out zombie war as Lord Constanta and his elite cadre of Rumanian vampyr warriors continue to sow holy terror among the allies.


The Fiends of the Eastern Front novels were always planned as a trilogy. The first volume, Operation Vampyr, established the presence of the undead on the battlefields of Eastern Europe. They were fighting alongside the Wehrmacht as it invaded Russia, just as the Rumanian forces did on the Eastern Front. The first novel told the story from the perspective of German troops - a rifleman, a Panzer commander and a Stuka pilot. Told in the third person, it was a tough book to write, especially knowing it had to succeed on its own merits and set up a trilogy of novels. But Operation Vampyr only covered the first six months of the Eastern Front - there was much more to come.

I'd always planned the second volume would tell events from the Russian perspective. I wanted The Blood Red Army to introduce a crop of characters, some of whom would survive to reappear in the third and final book of the trilogy [alongside German survivors from the first novel]. I felt the first book suffered because the Wehrmacht and vampyr were fighting alongside each other, creating a curious dichotomy. But switching to the other side of the conflict, the vampyr became part of the enemy, not a rogue element alongside the protagonist.

I wanted an enclosed setting to help ramp up the calustrophobic nature of the vampyr threat. Stalingrad was an obvious choice, but I thought the siege of Leningrad offered more opportunities for dramatic licence. The city was close to the Arctic circle, so in winter the nights would last far longer, making the vampyr menace all the more potent. I did a lot of research into what happened at Leningrad, the deprivations faced by the citizens and defenders, how some even resorted to cannabilism to survive. Food was so scarce, painters ate their oil paints.

I also decided to write this novel in the first person. Somehwo that made the fear and terror all the more intimate. It also freed me from having to be absolutely meticulous about presenting the historical context for events. My narrator could be unreliable, but his story would also be more compelling for its intimacy. Happily, this switch to first person made the book a breeze to write. I'd written one novel in the first person before - Doctor Who: Who Killed Kennedy - and it's still one of my favourites [and one of my best]. I think The Blood Red Army comes close to matching it. If only I could write all my novels first person.

Anyway, The Blood Red Army was a success for Black Flame. Anecdotal evidence suggests many readers found it first, before going back to read Operation Vampyr. As a consequence, they were nicely primed when the third and final volume appeared later in 2006. The Blood Red Army is remarkably popular in libraries. Alternatively, you can get the whole trilogy collected inside one cover. I'll always be grateful to this book, because it helped reignite my enthusiasm for writing novels when I felt in danger of lapsing into permanent hack mode. Here I got my mojo back.

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