From 1970s geek to master of the dark lord

4th January 2013 at 00:00
Nights of painting mini armies paid off for Funny Prize winner

As a small boy, Jamie Thomson lived in a land where his feet would sink into the melting roads and his friend's family slept beneath the sky under a huge bedcover embroidered with stars and moons.

Thomson grew up in Iran and remembers, at six years old, being taken to the ancient Persian capital of Isfahan, famed for the arches and domes of its intricate 17th-century architecture. "There was a beautiful mosque covered in turquoise mosaic tiles and the marketplace, with these narrow streets where silver merchants and carpet sellers traded. It was the beginning of my fascination with fantasy," he says.

Thomson's fascination has shaped his career as a prolific writer and creator of computer games based on fantasy worlds. At the end of last year, he won the Roald Dahl prize for the funniest book of 2012 with Dark Lord: The Teenage Years (Orchard Books, #163;5.99).

The book, in which the Dark Lord of the title is trapped in the body of a teenage boy, is the first instalment in a planned trilogy. The subject of a bidding war among publishers, it beat comedian David Walliams' Ratburger and Frank Cottrell Boyce's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again to the annual comedy prize.

"I was sitting in that theatre next to Philip Reeve (who had also been shortlisted for Goblins) listening to the judge saying how she'd laughed out loud on the train reading the winner," says Thomson.

"In my mind I was playing the voice of the Dark Lord - 'Curse that David Walliams' - so I was completely gob-smacked when she said it was me. It was just awesome. It was wonderful."

Thomson's lifelong interest in fantasy began while he was a pupil at Brighton College. "When I was 14 or 15, I discovered this game from America called Dungeons and Dragons," he says.

"It was a completely revolutionary concept. Instead of having a board, you would just sit around and make up stories. I'd be Nazgul, a Ringwraith (from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books), and my friend Mark Smith created a world, the Orb, like Middle-earth with gods and monsters.

"We'd sit and play Dungeons and Dragons in this world. I'd paint my little figures for war gaming and read White Dwarf magazine. I was a 1970s geek."

After A levels and a politics degree at the University of Kent, White Dwarf again proved a welcome escape for Thomson when he returned to Brighton with no idea about what he wanted to do for work.

"The magazine advertised for an assistant editor," he says. "My mum rang up Ian Livingstone (the editor) and said: 'My son's a total geek, you should give him an interview.' They got on really well and it was very embarrassing, but I got the interview and then I got the job."

Perfect for the job

Total geekery was not just a character trait but a vocation at Games Workshop, the company co-founded by Livingstone, which published White Dwarf. Livingstone and his business partner soon published the first Fighting Fantasy book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which was unlike any book before it. Instead of starting at page 1 and going straight through, readers were given options, such as: "If you want to turn right, go to page 43."

"There were only a handful of people in the country capable of writing those books," says Thomson. "I was one and Mark Smith (his friend from school) was another." Their first book together, Talisman of Death, was set in Orb.

For the next 12 years Thomson wrote similar books. "I felt it was my destiny," he says. "But I'd become too specialist, like a panda that eats only bamboo and when the bamboo goes, the panda does too."

Thomson's "bamboo" had been trampled by video games, and so he too moved into game design at Eidos, where Livingstone was now based. He has since set up his own company, Fabled Lands, for which he created the Dark Lord books.

"All my life I have created dark lords," he says. "But they are 2D ones, designed to be knocked down. Even great ones such as Sauron or Voldemort are not drawn with that much depth. So I wondered what is it like to be one? You can't have a shallow main character, so I made him likeable.

"He's in the body of a 13-year-old boy, so he has to go to school, and the idea of a dark lord going to school was great."

There are more books to come, but Fabled Lands is now also reviving some of the old game books and turning them into apps - almost as if, to return to Thomson's previous analogy, the bamboo has mutated into a new strain.

Aged 54, Thomson is as interested in his fantasy worlds as he was as a teenager, although he now balances the hours sitting in front of his computer screen with regular trips to his local gym.

"Healthy body, healthy mind," he says. "Although I am rather large. I was trying to lose weight, but since going to the gym I eat more." He laughs his dark lord laugh.



An extract from Dark Lord: The Teenage Years (Orchard Books, #163;5.99):

He tried to laugh maniacally and tell the humans to flee for their lives or be utterly destroyed, but all that came out was a cough. He tried unsuccessfully to sit up. He was still too weak. The human soldiers stood over him.

Surely his life couldn't end like this, lying helpless, waiting to be killed by a couple of ordinary humans? But then an odd thing happened. One of the warriors bent down and cradled his head. Was he trying to help him?

"Better call an ambulance, Phil."

The man who had spoken leaned closer, looking him over. (Stupid human. Didn't the fool realise who he was dealing with?) Immediately, he tried ripping the man's throat out with his iron-taloned Gauntlets of Ineluctable Destruction, but it was no good, he just didn't have the strength. Then he noticed he wasn't wearing any gauntlets, or even gloves. His hands were pink, pallid and pudgy, with neat little white nails, like those of a wretched little human boy! You couldn't even rip out the throat of a rat with those hands, let alone a fully grown human warrior. He groaned in despair.

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