The Serpent Calls by Christopher Bramley

High fantasy novel The Serpent Calls by neurodiverse author Christopher Bramley introduces readers to the mesmerising World of Kuln, transporting them on an epic quest of the first order.

By Timothy Arden   

It is arguable that, since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy lit up the screen over 20 years ago, the fantasy genre has gone from strength to strength.

But however absorbing the visual medium can be, it’s no replacement for the engrossing world-building that readers will find in original works of high fantasy fiction.

Now, alongside the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, and George R. R. Martin—undisputed masters of their craft, especially when it comes to sharing plausible fictional realms—comes a new name to rank aside them.

For, with his debut novel The Serpent Calls, author Christopher Bramley has created a truly astonishing and immersive work that presents a vivid fantasy world you’ll never want to leave.

In my opinion, Bramley is Britain’s most exciting new fantasy author and has delivered an effortlessly enchanting read that is rich in lore, compelling in storyline, and sparkling in prose, with an epic tale that will hook you from the very first page.

In essence, The Serpent Calls follows a well-trodden fantasy path of quests and danger, but does so with brio and originality.

It is set in the World of Kuln, where an ancient evil has reawakened in the land and threatens to carve an apocalyptic blaze of destruction as chaos bids to reassert itself.

The novel begins in the city of Meyar, where an elderly scholar is pursued and murdered by a sadistic assassin, Ventran, on behalf of his master, Sontles.

Sontles is a member of a dark order dedicated to the service of his god, Terome, and an ally to the forces of chaos.

He is searching for an elusive pendant, which he describes intriguingly as a “key to power”,  and which he believes is held by the Darostim, a mysterious sect of scholars. Discovering that it wasn’t in the possession of the murdered man, the despicable Sontles sets his sights on attacking the Darostim directly.

The Serpent Calls by Christopher Bramley is a gripping masterpiece that instantly singles out the author as an exciting new voice in the genre of high fantasy.

At the same time, elsewhere on the continent of Anaria, a young boy named Karland has run away from home after a bitter falling out with his family, on his birthday of all days.

Heading from the safety, if boredom, of his home town, The Croft, he ventures into the forbidden Northing Woods, a “wild and dark place, with rumours of outlaws and dangerous animals”.

Driven by an irresistible urge to upset his parents for their harsh words, Karland pushes ever further into the ominous gloom of the forest, ultimately having to remain there overnight.

The next morning, things go from bad to worse for him when, foraging for food, he stumbles into the camp of a heartless hunter. A dispute arises and the hunter tries to kill Karland, who is only saved when a ferocious bear, in turn, kills his attacker.

Fleeing the scene, Karland finds a clearing containing ancient ruins. Climbing upon them to try and get his bearings, he falls and injures himself, but is thankfully rescued by a friendlier resident of the woods, the healer Aldwyn Varelin.

Aldwyn, who recognises Karland, takes the boy back to his hut, packed with colourful potions and pungent herbs, where he applies some medicine to repair his injuries.

Returning to The Croft the next day, Aldwyn convinces Karland’s parents to allow him to become his apprentice, having seen great potential in the boy.

The unlikely duo, however, can’t settle long as Aldwyn, a member of the Darostim, becomes aware of Sontles’ deadly pursuit and, realising his life is in grave danger, sets off with Karland to reach the council of elders at Darost.

On their travels, they must contend with strange, terrifying beasts but sleep easier after encountering the warrior, Rast Tal’Orien, an old friend of Aldwyn’s who agrees to join their party.

They also meet a girl named Xhera who is wise beyond her years and who, like Karland, yearns for a meaningful life filled with purpose and adventure. With this deep connection, Karland quickly loses his heart to her.

Autistic author Christopher Bramley has used the hyperfocus that comes with his condition to build an intricate, immersive fantasy world without parallel.

After having to navigate through some hair-raising situations, the real quest begins upon reaching Darost. The council of elders is preparing for the oncoming war between realms— unaware of a deeper conflict between the forces of order and chaos—and central to their plans are Aldwyn and Karland, who are dispatched on a mission deep into the continent of Anaria to find out the secrets of the pendant.

Venturing through territories filled with merciless foes such as orcs and nightmarish man-eating creatures, they must make their way to the Hall of Wyrms with the pendant, guarded by perhaps the most perilous adversary, a gigantic dragon.

This description only provides the merest taster of what is to come across the book’s 500-plus pages, and which will be continued in future World of Kuln novels including the soon-to-be released sequel, Tides of Chaos.

As Aldwyn puts it to the council of elders …

'I do not know which frightens me more – my own fate, or the future of this world.’ His gaze took in the silent Councillors. ‘This is more than unrest in one nation, of natural disasters, of spreading madness. We may be coming to the end of things as we know them. A terrible dark storm gathers. It is violent, almighty, and one which may sweep this world away in its passing.

But while the work certainly demands your attention, it is so varied and vividly presented that your interest is always held as the stakes increase.

At times gut-wrenchingly gritty or horrific, at others more light-hearted and even comedic, The Serpent Calls offers a kaleidoscope of moods, gilded by language as riveting and enchanting as the magic that pervades the world.

While built upon the tried-and-tested pillars of high fantasy fiction, the novel is not afraid to carve its own path, throwing original foes such as gar-wolves, snapworms and grabber octopuses alongside the more familiar vampires, zombies, elves and dragons.

The cast of characters, too, quickly win you over. They all have their own agendas—some loyal, others treacherous— and they leap off the page as living, breathing individuals. Beneath the bravado of Karland and Xhera, for instance, is a loneliness that propels their relationship forward, while the warrior Rast is astute and brave but also someone who comes to question his own actions and motives. 

The plot is incredibly intricate, with myriad and near constant challenges for our heroes, ranging from roadside bandit attacks to marauding killer beasts, and Bramley’s fine eye for detail makes each threat seem utterly believable.

This brilliant execution is perhaps because the author, who is also a TEDx speaker, coach and consultant on themes such as complexity, resilience, and human learning, is neurodiverse, living with high-functioning atypical autism.

This condition, which for Bramley includes the ability to focus his mind for sustained periods, could be to thank for the meticulous detail and logical coherence that the narrative displays. At times, this commitment to reality borders on hard science-fiction in the scientific justification that he gives to the fantastical elements.

I should add that though this type of fantasy story is timeless, I appreciated the timely theme running through it of how knowledge, education and enlightenment is respected and sought by some but readily dismissed and destroyed by others.

In all particulars, it would be more than worthy of adaptation for the big screen, and based on this impressive first instalment, which was originally published in 2014 but has now been reissued in a revised edition, I am thoroughly looking forward to future entries in Bramley’s planned seven-book series.

The Serpent Calls by Christopher Bramley (Sanctum Publishing) is out now on Amazon in paperback, priced at £15.99, hardback priced £24.99, and as an eBook, priced £8.99. Tides of Chaos will be published later this year. For more information, visit www.christopherbramley.com .

EXCLUSIVE Q&A INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR CHRISTOPHER BRAMLEY

To mark the re-release of high-fantasy epic The Serpent Calls, we speak with its neurodiverse author, Christopher Bramley to learn more about the vivid World of Kuln, how his autism has benefited his writing, and his own high literary inspirations, and much more.

Q. You were recently diagnosed with autism. Can you tell us how your condition affects your day-to-day life?

A. Until I was diagnosed, I didn’t realise it was autism—I thought everyone struggled with most things day to day. Since then, understanding and acceptance has allowed me to see where daily life is both enhanced and impacted.

I deal with anxiety and massive, constant imposter syndrome in every area of my life. I can almost feel the drawing of a mask around myself like a cloak when I interact with the world. I’m very aware now that I’m introverted but have learned to be extroverted. I’m also usually exhausted despite huge energy reserves, because I now know my brain is never, ever off—it’s always hyper-analysing everything in real-time – which is how I know the ‘whys’ of things but am not aided in comprehending social interaction. Along with my inability to filter extremely intense emotions and sensory input, coping with this is very tiring.

My brain is like a fizzing, bubbling pot of water, never stopping, and where so many quick thoughts emerge and get linked. It can also be exhilarating. My assessor likened it to a CPU with tens of cores running at 95% load! It moves very quickly and in different ways, but has very little allowance for overload, where other people are much more resilient. That’s the crux. If I get overloaded, my brain stops working properly while it processes everything. It also makes me incredibly introspective and self-aware. I question everything I do, non-stop.

There’s a lot more to this, but suffice it to say that I’ve begun finding better ways to cope, including noise-cancelling headphones and learning when not to push myself past boundaries. Being officially atypically autistic has also allowed me to stop trying to fit to the expectations of society. People need to let go of a label being a stigma and remember it’s simply a taxonomy allowing us to work from a baseline. It’s a point of understanding.

Q. You credit your autism with allowing you to write in your unique style. Can you tell us more about this?

A. I have extreme observation of detail, clarity of recall, and both experience and expression which allows me to impart both where necessary. I don’t have a ‘photographic’ memory, perhaps because I question and disbelieve myself constantly, but I’ll put in things most people wouldn’t notice yet which I feel are things that make a scene more realistically fleshed out. The intensity of emotion and senses also helps me experience what characters would be feeling. I’m very deeply empathic, almost to a disability at times, but it has its place with compassion and understanding. I also hyperfocus on researching things. Interestingly, this intersects with the more ADHD-like traits of having no mental filter and getting easily distracted if I’m not hyperfocused.

It can be a pain but also can lead me down interesting new paths or discover new narrative links. I’m sure all this combines in how I write and helps me get across the humour, excitement, sadness or horror I feel when I’m writing scenes.

Q. Which character in your novels is most like you, and in what ways?

A. It probably has to be Karland, although I identify with aspects of Rast (mostly his sense of honour). I didn’t realise until Book Two in the World of Kuln series, Tides of Chaos, that Karland is, well, pretty obviously neurodiverse! He constantly experiences ‘sonder’, which is a profound realisation that everyone around you is as complex and individual as you are, which can be crippling and is something I experience in cities. In addition, he experiences freezes under some duress, doesn’t understand why some things which are logical are not obvious and other things which are deeply emotional for him don’t affect others. Karland has trouble doing things the way others do, but has flashes of intellect and sudden understanding which surprise those around him. We’re both pattern matchers/linkers in ways others don’t usually see, and he’s not invalid because of it— just different. Karland is different, but he’s not really a hero or a typical ‘chosen one’. He’s just a person struggling to understand an abnormal world, lost and quite lonely, not knowing where he belongs and experiencing things incredibly intensely and in great detail. That sums up an awful lot of my own life.

Q. Fantasy fiction is a well-established genre yet often looked down upon by the literary elite. Why do you think fantasy fiction should not be dismissed by those unfamiliar with it?

A. This is really important—I think people have an expectation of what ‘fantasy’ is, and that the genre can be dismissed as chock-full of stories and fantastic events that are ridiculous or poorly written. Obviously, that can be true of any genre but I think people should be open to exploring even what appears silly, and for a good reason: a good story, with realistic characters, is a good story period, no matter if it’s contemporary, set in WWII, takes place between the stars with entropic-field drone companions, or contains dragons. Those are interesting elements added from the world, but if you have the first two parts, any story can excel.

I think, too, that this has changed. In days of yore there was a tone to much of the fantasy around. But when you look at how it’s written, represented in film, and consumed today, it’s much more mainstream and has a depth of wit and contemporary integration which makes it far more accessible. And that’s the key for me—I want my books to be accessible to everyone. One of my best reviews was by a lady who won a competition for The Serpent Calls, and her resulting review began by telling everyone that she didn’t like fantasy books, It then went on to say how much she had loved it. If you can get someone who is ‘anti-fantasy’ to say, “Wow—this has opened my eyes to the genre and I will read more”, it is an amazing feeling and lets you share so many amazing authors with new people. If you can do it at the same time as a dyed-in-the-cloak fantasy lover is also saying “This is really good”, it’s even better, because you’re doing something right, engaging people, and sharing what you love with as many people as possible.

Q. What comes first for you – the characters or the plot – and why do you write this way? A. In terms of what do I think is most important, that’s the characters, because the plot is mostly what happens to them, and how we consume the plot is through their experiences. In terms of what came first, I had vague ideas of things, like seeing objects whilst diving, which resolved and changed and made more sense over time, and the characters didn’t enter into things until much later. But until their emergence, it was just an overarching idea of epic events. Characters drive the plot, the plot defines their evolution, and the world is where they reside, secondary to that focus. When I know how the characters feel, think, act, react, and more, it tells me more about how things will work going forward. In complexity terms, the characters are the probes which tell me more about the events, and dictate how interactions will change moving forward. It’s extremely entangled and reciprocal, and you have to be mindful of both at the same time, not necessarily one or the other. This is an answer typical of someone working with Complex Adaptive Systems, unfortunately!

Author Christopher Bramley so far plans seven books in his World of Kuln series, with the second instalment, Tides of Chaos, set to be released later this year.

Q. How would you sum up the world of Kuln to a new reader?

A. A real place, with real people, and events which affect them as they do us. But there are differences to the World of Kuln. It’s dangerous yet familiar, alien and exciting, but with beauty and wonder there, too. It’s somewhere I’d like to visit, if only to meet an old friend.

Q. You have created a living, breathing world in your fantasy books. Where do you get your inspiration from?

A. Several places—from random linkages my mind creates which spark inspiration; from a lot of very vivid dreams; and from the past and current times of our own world, the bits we ignore, forget, or love. Many of the things are from our own science and understanding, like the loose mapping of our languages as analogues, or how inks and parchment works and how magic actually works (some scientific applications and herblore. Some, like the god Yosgaloth, are from dreams (in that case, a nightmare), and some things are cultural to the now and reflected, used, or appropriated. I also occasionally slip in a cheeky reference to things I love, like Lord of the Rings, Discworld, or Star Wars.

Q. Which one fantasy author, from the past or present, would you like to meet and what would you ask them?

A. There are many, but the answer has to be Terry Pratchett. I never managed to meet him and to say, “All this was because of you”. I know people who knew him; I’ve heard so much about him; I love his books on so many levels, and he was one of the most profound inspirations for me to write, and I regret having missed the chance to thank him in person. I would ask him many things. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to ask him if he’d read my books, though! A very close second is probably Tolkien, as I feel a fellowship (no pun intended) with his work, although I’m no linguist and his work was the ultimate in world-building. I’d ask him anything to learn more about how he did it all.

Q. Tell us about your future plans with the World of Kuln series?

A. So far a loose seven books are planned, although there could well be more. A blessing and a curse is that I’ve created so much material at the back end that there are untold numbers of stories there, lurking. I also intend to expand the universe with many more short stories and companion books. Things like how the dwarves create their weapons and seal their cities, and so on. A lot of the magic and mystery in the world is really based on scientific thought, so exploring this would be ideal. But I don’t want to go too off-piste; there are some wonderful story arcs and characters which could be further explored either in their origins or lives after the events of these books. One thing I want to steer clear of, however, is writing the same characters for the sake of it, or finding ever more exotic circumstances to inflict on things. Sometimes stories just change, and characters don’t always get happy—or awful—endings. I’m as much in the fog as you, really. The books tend to inform me where they’re going, to a certain degree!

Q.  If you were stranded on a desert island with only one novel, what would it be and why would you select it?

A. Only one! These questions are so hard for me, as it would need to be a complete story or drive me mad in time. This is quite leftfield, but probably one of the earlier Stainless Steel Rat novels by Harry Harrison, or (more expectedly) a Pratchett Discworld novel. Mort was the first I read of his, but quite possibly Small Gods. Something with depth and meaning, no required dependencies before or after the book, and layers I can burrow into, but light enough to re-read forever. Can I choose an omnibus?

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