Annotated Excerpt: THE KEEP WITHIN by J. L. Worrad (Titan)

WorradJL-KeepWithinTo mark the recent publication of The Keep Within, the latest dark and humorous fantasy from J. L. Worrad (and as part of a blog tour), Titan Books has provided CR with this annotated excerpt. Before we pass things over to the author, here’s the synopsis:

When Sir Harrance ‘Harry’ Larksdale, bastard brother of the king, falls for a mysterious lad from the mountains, he is unwillingly caught up in a chaotic world of court intrigue and murderous folk tales. Meanwhile Queen Carmotta Il’Lunadella, First-Queen of the Brintland, needs to save her life and her unborn child. With the Third-Queen plotting against her, and rumours of coups rocking the court, Carmotta can rely only on her devious mind and venomous wit.

But deep within the walls of Becken Keep squats the keep-within – patient, timeless, and evil. To speak of the keep-within outside the walls of Becken Keep guarantees your bizarre and agonising demise within nine days. All the while, people fearfully whisper the name Red Marie: a bloodied demon with rusted nails for teeth and swinging scythes who preys on the innocent.

Harry and Carmotta are clinging to their dreams, their lives, by threads. And, beneath all, the keep-within awaits.

Now, over to the author…


Annotate a scene from my upcoming fantasy novel? My, that sounds fun! Thanks for the opportunity.

The Keep Within is a standalone book set in the same world as my previous novel, Pennyblade. It features a big evil castle with a smaller, even more evil castle inside it.  Few know of this inner keep’s existence and those who do are careful not to speak of it when out on the streets of the surrounding city, for doing so ensures a grizzly and bizarre death within nine nights time.

That’s it, that’s the big fantasy idea. As a younger writer I would throw every crazy concept into a book, ‘Hey! Look at me! Am I not a goddamn genius?’, but these days I find less to be exponentially more. The Keep Within is a fantasy novel you can slip on like a pair of warm, comfortable slippers, the world possessing a Tudor familiarity with all its courtly intrigue, bawdy shenanigans and lurid tights. The simple idea of a cursed castle within a castle permitted me to weave a wide cast of eccentric and memorable characters, each with their own ambitions and desires and plots and counter-plots. It let me focus upon the themes of power and the pursuit of power, of social hierarchy and the liberating potential of art. I also threw in a few dick jokes.

Here’s the start of Chapter Two, which is a bit calmer than the action-packed Chapter One and thus will stand up to annotation better. Probably. I’ve never annotated before. Chapter Two also introduces our male lead, so to speak, so I’ll mainly be annotating about him.

Chapter Two: Larksdale

Sir Harry Larksdale had a drunk and weeping playwright to deal with. Drunken playwrights were common as sparrows of course and weepers hardly unknown, but a drunk and weeping playwright sat high up on a stage rafter? It was really too-too much. Absolutely and utterly utter.

Well, Larksdale thought, alone upon the varnished stage of the open-air theatre, I do so like a challenge. Which was true, albeit long after when it had ceased being a challenge and had become mere story.

This was the first scene I wrote, despite it ending up in chapter two. Indeed, this scene was never intended to be in the book at all. I just wanted to get a hold on my main character, Harry Larksdale, and decided to write a short scene in order to do so. Having Larksdale try to persuade a drunk playwright down from a rafter seemed a good test of his skills. I have to feel the main character in my bones before I can write a book. I rabidly believe plot and character to be the same thing. Maybe I’m just that sort of author.

‘Tichborne?’ Larksdale called up, his breath steaming in the December air. ‘You’ll find no inspiration up there. In fact, I’m told there’s but a pigeon’s nest.’ Larksdale stroked his beard with a gloved and many-ringed hand (The first physical description. It’s not much and shouldn’t be. Physical description is an infamously knotty issue for writers and I lean toward swift and brief. Throw something to the reader as early as possible and have trust in their mind’s eye. Don’t weigh them down with detail). He noted the birchwood ladder lying nearby upon the stage. He gestured at it. ‘Now that’s not clever is it, Tich-o-me-lad? You’ve gone and marooned yourself.’

A clay bottle smashed upon the boards. Quite empty of course.

‘Piss your breeches, Larksdale,’ Tichborne barked. ‘You’re just the money! Grubby fingers in a silk purse!’

‘You wound me, sir,’ Larksdale said. ‘As only those mortal angels capable of golden verse can.’

‘Up your arse.’

I wanted Larksdale to be the opposite of the classic grimdark protagonist- you know, the cynical loner type- and instead be a gregarious soul who encourages those around him and believes in the essential decency of humankind yet, despite all this, somehow thrives in a grimdark world. That idea felt quietly radical to me, the sort of idea that makes me charge headlong at a blank page. My initial inspiration was Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s old sketch about a talent agent trying to break it to a one-legged acting hopeful that he’s not going to get the part of Tarzan. Moore plays it for cheap ableist laughs but the true humour lies in the delicate and reassuring language of Cook’s talent agent. He’s such a well-intentioned character, especially for a three-minute skit. I wanted a protagonist like that.

He hasn’t finished our play for Yuletide Eve, Larksdale surmised. Worse, likely not even started. The symptoms were familiar enough: the vulgarity and nihilism, the disregard for flasks.

Here’s an example of that warm slipper worldbuilding I mentioned earlier. ‘Yuletide Eve’ has holiday season vibes, it’s clearly something akin to Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Heck, despite this not being Earth these people use the term ‘December’. With The Keep Within I didn’t want the reader to have to catalogue a load of strange terms, not when there’s a whole pack of strange notions on the way. Believe me, Yuletide Eve get’s pretty darn odd as the story unfolds.

‘I’ll pass you the ladder,’ Larksdale said.

‘Don’t bother,’ Tichborne replied. ‘I’m soon to throw myself off.’

‘And what?’ Larksdale chuckled, stroked back a stray lock of black hair. ‘Break your ankles?’

‘Not if I dive head first.’

Then you’d likely bounce, fathead, thought Larksdale, but it was an uncharitable notion. The dear fellow was suffering after all. Larksdale wasn’t eager to scale a rickety ladder, but he wasn’t eager to waste an hour shouting up at an inebriated quill-jockey either. Larksdale had an engagement – a royal engagement at Grand Gardens no less – to attend at noon. It seemed the time had come for ol’ Harry Larksdale to become a man of action and valour, despite that being the very sort of man he crossed streets to avoid.

‘Tichborne,’ he called up, ‘I’m going to climb up beside you. Please don’t push the ladder away and send me to my death. I’d never say a nice word about you again.’

The playwright ignored him, staring at his own hanging feet.

My mother grew up on Tichborne Street in Leicester’s inner city. Both The Keep Within and Pennyblade are full of secret allusions to my home city or sometimes just things I enjoy generally. My SF novel, Feral Space, is chock full of references to eighties Bollywood movie Mr. India for instance. The Keep Within has its fair share of cultural nods too. It’s just something I like to do for that one reader who’ll pick up on it. Thus far none of my publishers have pulled me up on this behaviour. Please don’t tell them I do it.

‘Right,’ Larksdale muttered. He stared at the ladder upon the floor as if it were a chore he’d been avoiding, which increasingly it was. ‘Right then.’

The scuffle of boots upon wooden stairs came from stage left and Boathook Marla emerged. For such a slight woman she had an uncanny talent for stomping.

‘Sir,’ she said to Larksdale, ‘it’s all going to shit out there.’ She thumbed behind her, toward the backstage chambers.

Aha! The actual plot looms just off-stage! Inevitable really.

‘Wonderful,’ Larksdale said. A thought struck him. ‘Wonderful that you’re here, I mean. Come sweet Marla and be my foundations, my rampart, my very rock.’


‘Hold this ladder up.’


J. L. Worrad’s The Keep Within is out now, published by Titan Books in North America and in the UK. Titan also publishes the author’s previous novel, Pennyblade, in North America and in the UK.

Also on CR: Interview with J. L. Worrad (2022)

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter


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