Happy weekend to you all and welcome back to the Sunday Brunch Series! Episode 26 features Thomas M. Kane, author of many scholarly books and articles as well as the fantasy series Mara of the League!
He was kind enough to join me today to talk about Mara, Cold War history, his time writing gaming material, and tons more!
Without further delay, here he is ⚔️🥞
Welcome to the Sunday Brunch Series! As an introduction, can you tell everyone an interesting fact about yourself that isn’t in your author bio?
🎤 I used to live with a cat who ate paper. He figured out which button to press to make my computer printer eject sheets of it, so whenever he finished with one page he could help himself to another.
🍳What’s your brunch order today?
🎤 Pancakes sound good!
🍳So you also published gaming material? I was interested in learning more about your transition from gaming supplements, to role playing for students, to eventually lecturing on military exercises?
🎤 Yes, I broke into professional writing by publishing articles for role-playing games in Dragon magazine in the 1980s. Roger Moore, who was then editor at Dragon, was incredibly supportive. By the early 1990s, I was writing adventures and supplements for a wide variety of game systems, notably Shadowrun, Cyberpunk. GURPS, Top Secret, Talislanta, Ars Magica and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
A lot has changed in the gaming world. However, I’m thrilled to add that some of my work is still in print. I’m especially pleased to say that Atlas Games is still offering the Cyberpunk and Ars Magica adventures I wrote for them. Atlas encourages an original approach to writing gaming scenarios, with emphasis on character development. My work for Atlas includes The Chrome Berets, a Cyberpunk adventure in which characters wage guerrilla warfare. Greenwar, another Cyberpunk scenario featuring corporate takeovers and South of the Sun, an Ars Magica sourcebook about the legendary kingdom of Prester John.
I also designed wargames for Strategy and Tactics magazine and Command. When I started teaching politics at the University of Hull, I developed a module (i.e., a class) called The Nature of War, which dealt with the human side of warfare. To give students a taste of the confusion and complexity surrounding military command. I ran a week-long simulation of the World War Two German attack on Tobruk. Students took the part of leaders on the opposing sides and spent a week writing battle plans. We then worked out what we thought would have happened if they had implemented those plans in real life. The students often spied on the opposing team and attempted other hijinks which added to the fun.
Meanwhile, as you mentioned, I participated in a Royal Navy wargame called Operation Tropical Endeavour. I also observed a simulated battle involving real tanks at the US Army’s National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin. The NTC trip was especially valuable from a writing point of view, since it was an opportunity to see what military operations look like when you are in the middle of them. Or, perhaps, not to see—one truth which Fort Irwin demonstrates is that modern battles take place across great distances, and that the enemy is usually out of sight.
🍳You also travelled a ton while living in the UK, do you recall having a favorite destination?
🎤 When I was growing up, I really wanted to explore a cave. In Europe, I finally got to. Being deep inside the earth is an amazing experience. Perhaps the most memorable cavern I visited was the Cueva de la Pileta in southern Spain, which features paintings that are approximately 20,000 years old. The paintings are extremely detailed and realistic—more realistic, in fact, than the relatively recent prehistoric artwork found in other parts of the cave.
🍳Let’s talk about your series, Mara of the League! You likened the Waan conflict to the real-life Cold War, in which to summarize, neither the U.S. nor Russia really wanted to attack each other directly. How did the war translate into a fantasy series for you?
🎤 You are right, that’s one of the most important similarities. Mara’s homeland, the League, is locked in a rivalry with a country called Waan. Both sides know that if they wage a full-scale war, they risk devastating the countryside and triggering a civilization-ending famine. Therefore, they spy on each other and stir up trouble for one another’s allies while trying to avoid direct confrontation.
This standoff has lasted over a century. Most League citizens expect it to go on forever. However, as the story progresses, Mara becomes convinced that Waan’s leaders see the stalemate as no more than a temporary obstacle, and that they are working to engineer a situation in which it can invade the League at an acceptable cost. The question then becomes whether she can convince her rulers to fight back against Waan’s plot in time.
So, the Mara of the League series is mainly an adventure story. The first three books involve espionage and political intrigue. Book Four features military strategy and battlefield action. The series also devotes a lot of attention to Mara’s thoughts and to her attempts to make sense of her world. Like the university class I mentioned earlier, this series is very much about the human side of things.
Anyone who enjoys exciting stories can enjoy this series. Those who are interested in history may notice that Mara is facing situations which resemble crises which erupted in real life. Fans of Cold War thrillers may notice that I’m taking a different approach from many authors in that genre. Sir John Hackett set the tone for many Cold-War-gone-hot books with his novel The Third World War (spoilers ahead).
The Third World War depicts a scenario in which weak Soviet leaders stumble into an ill-considered war with the West. The numerically superior Soviet forces do considerable damage at first, but Western defenders thwart them with superior technology and skill. Soviet leaders then fire one nuclear missile, but when the West retaliates with a single nuclear strike of its own, the Soviet government collapses.
Hackett’s novel is enthusiastic about military hardware. It pays relatively little attention to the ways in which a third world war would touch the lives of its characters, and of everyone on earth. Although Hackett suggests a political scenario which could bring war about, he depicts the Soviet leaders making hasty decisions, with few motives beyond staying in power. He glosses over the fact that the Soviet Union was founded upon a belief system which held that war to the death with the liberal nations was a historical necessity, and which gave them a compelling reason to prepare for such a conflict in a long-term and systematic way. Other thrillers (e.g., Ralph Peters’ Red Army) present the Soviet Union as a more formidable opponent, but even they stick to tried-and-true scenarios of Soviet numbers going head-to-head against Western hardware. A great deal of Western military planning rested on the assumption that something like this would happen in real life. Real-life international relations scholars tended to downplay the importance of Communist ideology as well.
Russia’s mistakes in its 2022 invasion of Ukraine makes Hackett’s depiction of Soviet incompetence seem believable. On the other hand, the increasingly visible ideological splits in contemporary politics remind us that Soviet leaders may have sincerely believed in their version of Communism. Fortunately, we will never know whether Hackett’s vision was realistic.
The Mara of the League series takes advantage of its fantasy setting to get away from arguments about what would actually have happened if the Soviet Union had attacked the West and explores what might have happened in an ideologically-driven conflict where the antagonists know what they are doing.
🍳Whew. What would you say to someone who reads that and says “Wow, I’d love to read the Mara books but I know nothing about this portion of history”?
🎤No background knowledge is required. The story begins with an eleven-year-old girl trying to save her family. She doesn’t know much about war or politics yet. Readers learn along with her.
🍳What prompted you to start Mara off as a tween, and grow her up pretty quickly throughout the series?
🎤As an adult in Book Three, Mara warns her country’s ruler of an attack no one else sees coming. Many think she is wrong, and that following her advice could provoke a civilization-ending war. Her experiences at twelve and seventeen helped her see threats which others overlooked and motivated her to want to defend herself at all costs.
[[She also got used to standing her ground when people thought she was wrong as a young kid! My favorite theme so far is trusting your own logic and intuitions]]
🍳You took an unconventional view of witches which I really liked, and brought a rather realistic fear of magic into the first book. Why did you choose that take, vs, say, bringing real magic into the series? Did it fit into the “flintlock fantasy style” a bit more?
🎤So glad you liked it! Mara spends her youth confronting her own country’s injustices. So, much of the story concerns the ways societies respond to dissent, the ways people turn against each other, and the ways powerful institutions keep control. The fact that Mara’s government did not need any evidence of real magic to accuse her aunt of witchcraft was part of the point.
However, real magic may exist in Mara’s world. There’s a scene in which her father claims to have seen it. When I came up with the idea for this series, I planned to include working magic. I planned to have it play a role in warfare similar to the role played in real life by nuclear weapons. As I started to write, I found I could tell the story I wanted to tell relying solely on the real-life problems of feeding armies in the early gunpowder era, so the magic weapons turned out to be unnecessary
🍳I loved the audiobooks and thank you for the chance to listen! How did you connect with your narrator? Was it a positive overall experience bringing Mara to audio?
🎤Again, so honored by your kind words! I beta-read Stevie Marie’s excellent fae-based fantasy Heart of Darkness. A few months later, she posted on Twitter that she planned to start narrating audiobooks. By good fortune, I saw the tweet and responded to it. I am thrilled with her work, and I’ve gotten lots of encouraging feedback. I’m incredibly grateful to have connected with her.
I’m currently listening to Stevie’s Kingdom of Acatalec. It’s a science fiction adventure about a feisty pilot who competes in an illegal drone race to save her friend. Strongly recommend.
🍳Have you read anything amazing recently?
🎤A few months ago, I discovered Gillian Flynn’s thrillers Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl. I found her characters relatable and really enjoyed the way she explores their thoughts and feelings. Also very much admire the way Flynn crafts sentences. Unfortunately, she hasn’t written much, so I went looking for other authors who take a similar approach. This led me to discover Paula Hawkins, who is also brilliant. Just started Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, and it looks as if it is going to be fantastic too.
🍳Thanks so much for taking the time to interview! The last question is always an open forum, so please take this space to talk about anything I missed, or anything in the world that you want to share!
🎤Now that Mara’s series is complete, I’ve written a book about her mother Abigail. Abigail is a seventy-eight-year-old lawyer. As the war between Waan and the League rages around her, she comes out of retirement to defend a teen accused of murder. This fantasy legal thriller is titled The People vs. Abigail Bennet, and it will be available for sale in early 2023.
I also invite everyone to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter at thomasmkane.com. Every issue includes original articles or short fiction. The next issue features a return to Life in a Cup, a series of humorous tales and personal reflections based around experiences I’ve had drinking coffee.
There you have it! Thank you as always for tuning into Sunday Brunch, and do let us know if you enjoyed this interview!
You can find the author and his books online at: