Hi folks! I’m really happy to share with you my interview with Zamil Akhtar. Zamil is the author of SPFBO 7 Semi-Finalist Gunmetal Gods, and has two other books out in the same series; Conqueror’s Blood and the novella Death Rider.
When Zamil was fourteen, he moved from the dry, dune-spotted Arabian peninsula to the hilly, arctic wasteland that is Western Massachusetts. He despises the cold, isn’t very fond of the sun, and prefers spending all day indoors mashing the keyboard in the hopes something great will come of it. When not dreaming up dark and fantastical journeys, he enjoys binging horror movies, wasting precious time arguing about international relations on Reddit, and occasionally traveling somewhere exotic. He currently lives in Dubai with his loving wife and his badly-behaved pet rabbit.
Hi Zamil! Welcome to Spells & Spaceships, it’s a real pleasure to have you here.
I recently finished your books ‘Gunmetal Gods’ and ‘Death Rider’ which to me seem obviously inspired at least in part by the crusades, but also the Mughal period and Ottoman Empire, perhaps the early Holy Roman Empire too.
Did these form part of your inspiration and would you say you have a strong interest in history?
The entire Gunmetal Gods series is inspired by the Gunpowder Empires historical period, in which the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Empire, and Mughal Empire dominated Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia with gunpowder technology that no one else possessed at the time. It’s my favorite historical period to study. One of the areas that really interested me were the various incarnations of firearms, massive bombards, and things like primitive grenades that they used to great effect on the battlefield.
I also think gunpowder/flintlock fantasy is an underserved genre!
Medieval inspired fantasy often takes place in a very North European inspired sphere. I really like the fact that your books say, “wait a minute, people; medieval doesn’t have to mean anglo-centric, or Vikings, or mainly white men in steel plate talking about chivalry. Interesting stuff happened internationally during the middle ages.”
Did you hope to challenge these conventions, or is that simply a by-product of the story you wanted to tell?
There are so many mythologies and histories that are ripe for exploration through fantasy. Since I’m passionate about Middle Eastern history, it’s natural for me to extend that passion into my fantasy writing. Mixing up the historical cultures, themes, and events that I genuinely nerd out about is one of my favorite things about expanding the world of Gunmetal Gods.
Although there are despicable characters that make us more likely to support one particular side in Gunmetal Gods, you make it clear that there are good and bad actions on both sides of the conflict. Most of the negative decisions made are a result of blind faith or misguided religious direction.
Do you think history would have been more peaceful without religion, or would we have just found something else to fight and kill each other over?
I would say that the characters who do awful things in the book are giving in to their worst instincts as human beings, and then twisting religion to justify their actions. Religion has been used throughout history to manipulate entire nations into wars, but so has nationalism and other ideologies entirely unrelated to religion.
I really enjoyed the horror elements scattered throughout your work. You did a great job at making things feel really creepy.
Do you enjoy writing horror and do you have any plans to write a horror novel?
I love writing horror. It’s my natural instinct as a writer to make things as horrifying and gut-wrenching as possible. Horror is such a visceral genre – it doesn’t rely on too many tricks to entertain, just utter dread and terror. Sometimes as a writer you keep the dread subtle, and at other times you dial up the terror to eleven. Knowing when to do what is the fun of writing horror.
I actually do write horror short stories for the Reddit r/nosleep community. Some of my stories have also been turned into YouTube audio narrations. You can check them all out at ZamilAkhtar.com/NoSleep
I don’t have a horror novel planned, but you never know.
I can imagine the strange gods you created were enjoyable to invent and flesh out.
What have you found most fun about writing so far?
I have a lot of fun devising strange metaphysics based on all the weird gods I create. I think fantasy should be as fantastical as possible, though I do believe it should be doled out in doses and not all at once. I enjoy easing readers in to my strange worlds, that at first may seem normal but behind the curtain all kinds of bizarre stuff is going on.
Was Gunmetal Gods your first introduction to writing a novel, or are there discarded and unfinished Zamil Akhtar works now crumpled in a recycling pile?
I’d written one full novel before while I was in college. It was a science-fantasy novel, so very different from Gunmetal Gods. Some of the ideas from that work did make it to Gunmetal Gods, though. I do have a few other abandoned novels that I wrote partially and never finished before I wrote Gunmetal Gods. I always think about taking some of the cool ideas from those novels and repurposing them toward future projects.
Can you recommend any other Middle Eastern inspired fantasy, or perhaps where readers can find out more about the folklore?
I definitely recommend Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. He’s such a masterful writer and brings the world to life in a way that is utterly mesmerising. Also, he’s the best describer of food that I’ve encountered!
What does the future hold for you as an author? I believe you have Gunmetal Gods #3 and a new series, ‘Lightblade’ on the horizon?
My new progression-fantasy novel Lightblade will be launching in May. I describe it as Star Wars meets Inception, as it features laser sword duels, shared dreaming, and airships. It’s set in a science-fantasy world, so it’s very unlike Gunmetal Gods. I’ll be announcing more about it soon!
Gunmetal Gods Book 3 will be my next project after that, and I’m planning for an early 2023 release.
Do you have a favourite book or series, and what is the last book you read that blew you away?
My favorite series is the Three Body Problem trilogy, with Book 2 in that series being my favorite book of all time. It’s the best cosmic horror story ever told. A lot of people have read the first book, but the first book barely gets into the ideas that make the entire series so exceptional.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing? I see you’ve been playing Elden Ring, a game that has meant I haven’t read anything for the past week!
I do love playing videogames, and Elden Ring has been a blast, though it has almost made me cry a few times. Other than that, I enjoy traveling, attending cricket matches, and playing with my pet rabbit.
Thanks for stopping by for the chat, Zamil. Best of luck with your new releases and I hope we can catch up again in future!
Want to try out Zamil Akhtar’s work for free? His excellent novella, Death Rider is available to all newsletter subscribers as well as a free copy of Arabian Nights, a legendary collection of Middle Eastern Myths. His website features some more of his short fiction too!
You can read my reviews of Zamil’s books here:
“One day while surfing the clouds, Jyosh will slay a divine dragon and save the world. But he’s got a long way to go to that fated day. His first challenge: survive a prison camp where the wardens delight in abusing weaklings like him.
Watching them behead his only friend for no good reason, he decides enough is enough and smuggles in a magic lucid-dreaming stone. Each hour of sleep equals a day in the dream stone’s world, plenty of time to learn how to fight with a lightblade and hopefully get skilled enough to punish his oppressors.
But when lightblade adepts from the mightiest empire on the planet literally start raining down from the sky, he’ll face a trial by fire against foes far more frightening than he ever could’ve dreamed.”