Plot Outline:Jebel Rum is a thin, scrawny boy. His father is the famed executioner in the city where they live. When Jebel is humiliated in public, he sets off on a quest to gain great strength and invincibility. If successful, he will be able to compete in a gruelling contest to prove himself and replace his father as the wielder of the axe. Failure, on the other hands, means certain death.
To win the favour of a fire god, Jebel must make a human sacrifice. He finds a slave who is willing to pay this grisly price, and the pair set off on a trek through lands deadly and unwelcoming. In the course of their travels they will encounter hatred, bigotry, slavery, death and a whole lot more. It is the nightmarish adventure of a lifetime…
Author Notes:The Thin Executioner started life in February 2002. I often get asked where I get my ideas from. Usually I can’t answer that directly, as a book can have many sources. But in this case I can. It owes its existence to a short book by Philip Pullman, called The Firework-Maker’s Daughter.
The Pullman book is fun, but it wasn’t actually the story which inspired me. Since it was a short novel, for younger readers, it was heavily illustrated. One small picture was of an executioner. It was, if I remember correctly, the typical cartoon rendition of an executioner — a burly, bare-chested man, with a large axe and a hood over his face. I chuckled at the drawing and turned the page… Then I paused and turned back.
I’d just had an idea. In every drawing I’d ever seen, executioners were large, muscular men. It made sense — you need to be big to swing a heavy axe and chop off a person’s head. But what if there was a young, skinny, weak boy whose dream was to become an executioner when he grew up? And what if he set off on a quest to gain magical powers which would give him the strength to cut off heads?
I smirked wickedly. I thought it was a good idea for a short, humourous, illustrated children’s book, a bit like the Pullman novel that I was reading. It would be a subversive twist on those encouraging books where an unlikely child becomes a hero by being true and brave. A novel whose message was that you could achieve anything in life if you set your mind to it and worked hard… but in this case the hero’s goal was to be become a trained killer!!!
As I played around with the notion, I started to have more ideas, and it quickly became apparent that if I was to go ahead with this, I’d have to abandon my initial concept. The story was much bigger than I had first imagined. It wouldn’t fit in a short, illustrated book. And it would need to be written for my regular audience, not for younger kids.
I didn’t rush into the book. For the rest of the year I let it simmer away at the back of my mind. I’d think about it occasionally, come up with some ideas, imagine some scenes. I found myself recalling The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I hadn’t read it in 20 years, but I could remeber a lot about it, and I wanted to incorporate some of that book’s spirit into my story — if I went ahead with it.
Then I went away on holiday to Jordan for Christmas, and that’s where everything clicked. I knew the basic outline of the potential book already, but Jordan inspired lots of new ideas. The desert scenery of Wadi Rum and the majestic old city of Petra literally blew my mind, and several key scenes pretty much wrote themselves inside my head. By day I would tour and relish the sites, by night I would jot down story ideas.
In March of 2003, I went ahead and started work on the first draft. To honour Jordan’s influence on the growth of the novel, I decided to name almost all of the characters and places after Jordanian landmarks. This gave the story a more exotic feel, and I ran with that, coming up with a fantasy world called Makhras. I drew a rough map to help myself picture the terrain. I wrote up notes about the people who lived in the different countries, what they believed in, how they acted and dressed. I spent a lot of time thinking about things which wouldn’t be needed in the book, but which I needed to know in order to make the world as believable as our own.
The first draft was MUCH longer than the finished book. I explored the world of Makhras in great detail, covering politics, history, sociology, religious beliefs and a whole lot more. I ended up cutting out a lot of what I had written in later drafts, but it was essential to get all of my thoughts down on paper to begin with. First I made the world “real” and multi-layered, then I whittled it down to its main story.
Even in the early days, when the book was a lumbering behemoth, I realised that it was my personal favourite out of all the books which I had so far written. Something about the story touched something deep inside me, and I responded to it more warmly than to any of my other tales. I’ve spent ten years saying in interviews that I don’t have a favourite book, and for a long time that was true. But The Thin Executioner changed that, and until and unless I come up with one that I enjoy more, this still stands as the book I would pick if someone was to tell me that I could only keep one book out of everything I’ve ever written.
I worked hard on the book over the next several years. I tightened it up, made it more of a pacy read, re-worked many of the facts about Makhras and its people. Although this is a fantasy book, I wanted it to be about the world in which we live. In many ways the book is a reaction to the war in Iraq, to 9-11 and the world of fear and suspicion which has resulted. I wanted to write a book that dealt with those issues, that asked readers to examine their beliefs and prejudices, that explored the need for tolerance and acceptance of people who are different to ourselves. I think there should be room for all sorts of religions and ideas in this world, and that it should be possible for everyone to get along in peace together. This book is my way of working my ideas into an exciting, action-packed story, in the hope that they might have more of an impact that way.
The Thin Executioner isn’t a criticism of any specific race or religion. I don’t think anyone is perfect, that we all have flaws. The key message of the book is that we should all pay closer attention to what we think and say and do, that we should always question the wisdom of our elders, listen to our hearts, try to be more open-minded.
Having said all that, I do think the assault on Iraq was unjustified, that a small group of people in America and the UK used 9-11 as an excuse to oust Saddam Hussein. I’m not making any excuses for him – he was a nasty, vicious tyrant – but he didn’t pose any real threat to the West, so we had no valid reason for toppling his regime, killing him, and reducing Iraq to a chaotic warzone. It was an example of two strong nations flexing their muscles and bullying a weaker nation into submission, regardless of the law or morality. So, to express my disgust at what happened, I decided to name two of the characters in the book after two of the biggest politcial rogues I think we’ve seen in a long time. Therefore we get the dubious re-pairing of two of the early twenty-first century’s polotical bogeymen — Master Bush and Master Blair!
Off with their heads!!!!
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The Thin Executioner (Hungary)
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The Thin Executioner (USA paperback)
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