The Amber Crown is published today – 11th January 2022

After what seems like an age, the Amber Crown is out today. I’d already written a first draft before I sold my first book to DAW in 2013. That sale led to six books (two trilogies), so I didn’t have time to go back to The Amber Crown until I’d finished all the books that were under contract. Once I delivered Rowankind, I dug out The Amber Crown and started a major structural edit, swapping things around, writing in extra backstory, and completely rewriting the ending.

Why is it set in the Baltic?
A few years ago I was sitting at my desk, falling down a google-shaped rabbit hole, hopping from one random factoid to another when I came across an article on the Livonian Brothers, the Teutonic Knights, and the Northern Crusades. Like most people I always thought of the Crusades as being exclusively Jerusalem-focused and featuring Saladin and Richard the Lionheart in a hot, arid landscape. But the Northern Crusades were the Christian colonisation of the pagan Baltic peoples by Catholic Christian military orders. Separate crusades came in waves from the late 12th century through to the 14th. Until then I’d assumed that Christianity had continued to spread northwards, much as it had spread through the British islands. How wrong I was. Although I considered it, I didn’t set my book in that exact period, but one thing that stuck with me was that the Baltic lands were Christianised late and that pagan beliefs (and magic) lasted longer there. That gave me an opening, so my book is set somewhere around the 16th century in an imaginery country, Zavonia, that’s approximately where Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are today.

Research
I researched the architecture, the clothing, the food, and tried to capture a Baltic feel, though I changed the names of the countries. Of course I’m not writing history, but I wanted the flavour of history. Verisimilitude.

They say if you are going to steal, steal from the best. I stole the Polish Winged Hussars from history, and transplanted them to my Zavonia. If you want to be amazed, look them up. These guys rode into battle with enormous wings made of eagle feathers on an iron frame strapped to their backs; the shock troops of their day.

Characters and Conflict
A story is all about conflicted characters in difficult situations, and this one has plenty of character conflict, with three main protagonists, Valdas, Mirza, and Lind. They start out separate and come together as the book progresses.

Valdas was the first character who presented himself to me. As the story starts he’s captain of the High Guard, King Konstantyn’s bodyguard. He’s a good soldier, solid and responsible. He didn’t rise to his position by being ordinary. He’s a decorated hero of the battle of Tevshenna (complete with wings) but that doesn’t help him when the king is killed and he’s accused.

Lind, the clever assassin, dispassionate and cold blooded, presented himself to me next. His thoroughly professional exterior hides a mess of a man with more hangups than your average wardrobe. I really enjoyed writing Lind. He’s the character who goes through the biggest change, from a terrible childhood to… well I can’t tell you that, you’ll have to read The Amber Crown.

So where does the magic come in? Mirza is the witch-healer of a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s tasked by the ghost of the dead king, to travel with Valdas because he doesn’t believe in magic (which is unfortunate as it turns out). There’s a dark power rising in the capital city of Biela Miasto and Mirza is the only one who can stand against it – though she can’t do it alone.

Launch Event
If you read this in time and you fancy coming along to the virtual launch event on Facebook Live, it’s at 8.00 p.m. (UK time) – that’s 3.00 p.m. in New York – on Tuesday 11th January 2022. I’ll be in conversation with Tiffani Angus and there will be a Q&A session too. You’ll find it here: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer If you’ve missed the actual event by the time you read this, the video will be up on Facebook and Youtube afterwards.

Reviews
I hope you’ll buy the book and enjoy it, and if you do it would be a tremendous help to me if you can review it, shout about it, mention it anywhere, your own blog, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Amazon, Instagram, Bookstagram. Once a book gets more than 50 reviews on Amazon it’s bumped up in the algorithms and shown to a lot more people. Your review doesn’t have to be reams of purple prose, just a few words will be fine. It’s the number of reviews that count on Amazon, not the length. Though, of course, I’ll be doubly grateful for thoughtful words.

You can buy now in dead tree version or electronic.
PenguinRandomHouse
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Books A Million
Bookshop.Org
Hudson Booksellers
Indiebound
Powells
Ebooks also from: Google Play Store and Kobo

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Countdown to The Amber Crown – One Week to Go

Only one week to go to publication of The Amber Crown, and there’s still so much to do. I’ve been writing blog posts for John Scalzi’s Big Idea, and Chuck Wendig’s blog, plus a piece for Jean Book Nerd, Paul Weimer’s Six Books blog, Sarah Ash’s blog, Cheryl Sonnier’s blog, Mark Bilsborough’s Wyldblood Magazine, and The Nerd Daily. I’ve had lots of lovely offers from other writers to host me on my blog tour to support the new book, so I’m looking forward to writing pieces for Juliet McKenna, Nancy Jane Moore, Gail Martin, Pete Sutton, Joshua Palmatier, Jim Anderson, Russell Smith, Gaie Sebold, and Ju Honisch in Germany.

Eight down, thirteen to go.

I’m trying to write something different for each blog post, or, at least, to cover the same things in a different way. It’s much easier for me if I get a list of interview questions. I probably end up writing more in terms of word-count than I would if I wrote a straightforward blog post, but intelligent questions can spark new trains of thought, and send me off in a different direction, or maybe make me consider something I hadn’t thought of before.

I’ve also had a couple of pre-publication reviews – good ones, I’m pleased to say. This is the Publisher’s Weekly review. Also here’s a very thoughtful review from Nimue Brown on her Druid Life blog:

And Paul Weimer sent me questions for his Six Books interview.

So right now I have my head down, writing furiously about different aspects of The Amber Crown, from character studies to fashion and worldbuilding.

My blog post next week will be on publication day. If you have any questions for next week’s blog you can put them in the comments below or email them to me at jacey@jaceybedford.co.uk and I’ll try to answer them.

Also on publication day Stephanie, my publicist at DAW, is arranging an online book launch via Facebook which is likely to take place at 8.00 p.m. UK time (GMT). That’s 3.00 p.m. New York time, so work out your own timezone from that. My author facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer

I’ll send more information via my mailing list before the launch, so either sign up to my facebook page or join my Mailchimp author mailing list here: http://eepurl.com/ds8f2P

Anyone who joins the mailing list before Sunday 9th January will get an exclusive sneak preview of Chapter One of The Amber Crown as a thank you.

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Books Read in 2021

With the year drawing to a close, here’s my list of books read in 2021. There are 73 in total, including re-reading a couple of my own. I’d like to give a quick shout-out to T Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon, particularly for the two Saint of Steel books I read this year; also to John Scalzi for his Old Man’s War series. Special mention to Benedict Jacka for wrapping up his twelve book Alex Verus series in fine style. New to me this year was K.J. Charles’s trio of excellent Will Darling adventures which I read one after the other. Julia Quinn, author of Bridgerton which hit TV screens this year, provided some lovely fluffy Regency romances – my guilty pleasure. There were single books from some of my favourite authors: Liz Williams, Juliet E. McKenna, N.M. Browne, Sebastien de Castell, Kari Sperring, and Lois McMaster Bujold. I had a great reading year, topped off by Leigh Bardugo’s Rule of Wolves which at the very end promised another Kaz Brekker book. He’s my favourite character from the Six of Crows Duology. Here’s my full list. You can get my thoughts on these by going to my reading blog at Dreamwidth, blog. HAPPY NEW YEAR and happy reading in 2022. (Don’t forget my seventh book, The Amber Crown, is out from DAW on 11th January.)

1)    Simon R Green: The Best Thing You Can Steal

2)    Liz Williams: Blackthorn Winter

3)    Georgette Heyer: Venetia

4)    Hannah Matthewson: Witherward – Witherward #1

5)    Julia Quinn: Mr Cavendish I Presume – Two Dukes of Wyndham #2

6)    Charlotte Anne: The Unworthy Duke

7)    T. Kingfisher: The Hollow Places

8)    Julia Quinn: Dancing at Midnight – Splendid #2

9)    Julia Quinn: Minx – Splendid #3

10) Patricia Briggs: Wild Sign – Alpha and Omega #6

11) T Kingfisher: Paladin’s Strength – Saint of Steel #2

12) Julia Quinn: Everything and the Moon – Lyndon Sisters #1

13) Julia Quinn: Brighter than the Sun – Lyndon Sisters #2

14) James S.A. Corey: Leviathan Wakes – The Expanse #1

15) Ben Aaronovitch: Takes from the Folly – Rivers of London

16) Elizabeth Chadwick: The Wild Hunt – Wild Hunt #1

17) Elizabeth Chadwick: The Leopard Unleashed – Wild Hunt #3

18) A.J. Lancaster: The Lord of Stariel – Stariel #1

19) N.M. Browne: Bad Water

20) Ian Mortimer: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain

21) Jodi Taylor: Another Time, Another Place – Chronicles of St Mary’s #12

22) Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Connie Brockway: The Lady Most Likely – Lady Most #1

23) M. Verant: Miss Bennet’s Dragon (Jane Austen Fantasy #1)

24) K.M.Peyton: The Right Hand Man

25) John Scalzi: The Ghost Brigades – Old Man’s War 2

26) John Scalzi: The End of All Things – Old Man’s War 6

27) John Scalzi: The Last Colony – Old Man’s War 3

28) John Scalzi: Zoe’s Tale – Old Man’s War 4

29) Agatha Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

30) Lois McMaster Bujold: The Assassins of Thasalon

31) John Scalzi: The Human Division – Old Man’s War 6

32) Michelle Magorian: Goodnight Mister Tom

33) Fran Bushe: My Broken Vagina: One Woman’s Quest to Fix Her Sex Life, and Yours

34) Darcy Burke: A Rogue to Ruin – The Pretenders #3

35) K.J. Charles: Slippery Creatures – Will Darling #1

36) K.J. Charles: The Sugared Game – Will Darling #2

37) K.J Charles: Subtle Blood – Will Darling #3

38) Jacey Bedford: Crossways – Psi-Tech #2

39) Jacey Bedford: Nimbus – Psi-Tech #3

40) Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Wayfarers #1

41) T. Kingfisher: Nine Goblins

42) Stephen Aryan: The Coward.

43) Catherynne M Valente: The Past is Red

44) Ursula Vernon: Black Dogs Part One: The House of Diamond

45) Ursula Vernon: Black Dogs Part Two: The Mountain of Iron

46) Stephanie Garber: Once Upon a Broken Heart

47) Jodi Taylor: Long Shadows – Elizabeth Cage #3

48) Sebastien de Castell: Way of the Argosi – Spellslinger #0.5

49) Burgis, Stephanie: The Raven Heir – Raven Crown #1

50) R.W.W. Greene: Twenty Five to Life

51) Juliet E McKenna: The Green Man’s Challenge – Green Man #4

52) Sabaa Tahir: An Ember in the Ashes – An Ember in the Ashes #1

53) Katherine Buel: Heart of Snow

54) Genevieve Cogman: The Secret Chapter – The Invisible Library #6

55) Sherwood Smith: The Phoenix Feather – Fledglings #1

56) Kari Sperring: The Rose Knot

57) Andre Norton & Sherwood Smith: Derelict for Trade – Solar Queen #6

58) Stephanie Burgess: Scales and Sensibility – Regency Dragons #1

59) Martha Wells: All Systems Red – Murderbot Diaries #1

60) Jodi Taylor: Saving Time – The Time Police #3

61) T Kingfisher: Paladin’s Hope – Saint of Steel #3

62) Lois McMaster Bujold: Knot of Shadows – Penric and Desdemona #11

63) Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens

64) Gaie Sebold: Bad Gods – Babylon Steel #1

65) Mary Jo Putney: Once a Laird – Rogues Redeemed

66) R J Palacio: Pony

67) Benedict Jacka: Risen – Alex Verus #12

68) T. Kingfisher: The Raven and the Reindeer.

69) Georgette Heyer: Sylvester

70) Naomi Novik: A Deadly Education

71) Leigh Bardugo: Rule of Wolves – King of Scars #2

72) Benedict Jacka: Favours – Alex Verus novella

73) Jodi Taylor: The Toast of Time

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Countdown to The Amber Crown – (less than) 2 Weeks to Go

Happy New Year to all.

This is my last post for 2021 and the penultimate post leading up to The Amber Crown. If you already have it on pre-order, thank you very much. If not, you can pre-order it now (see links below).

Because I have a different deal with DAW this time, The Amber Crown is available on Kindle in the UK (unlike my other books which were only available in hard copy as American imports).

So what has the past year been like? I finished writing the Amber Crown in May after doing some structural editing, adding a few scenes and changing the ending (a bit). Then I did the obvious read through (several times) to catch awkward sentences and spelling errors.

When do you count a book as finished? I’m not sure you ever do. There simply comes a time when you say, “It’s as good as I can make it,” and so you send it off, knowing your editor will catch things that you’ve missed. Once you’ve sent it off you have to avoid thinking up new plot twists if you can. The book stays in your head though, and sometimes it won’t leave you alone.

In the summer my editor asked me what kind of cover I would like. This is really mind-blowingly wonderful because many publishers don’t let you have a say in your own cover. I said I’d like a graphic rather than an illustrative cover, and she agreed with me that graphic covers were trending at the moment. This is what came back from Bose Collins. I was gobsmacked. It exceeded my expectations. I love it.

In the autumn I got the copy-edits to approve. Shoshana Seid-Green did a really sensitive copy edit, adding and correcting punctuation etc. but nothing too invasive. Americans use a lot more commas than Brits do, but I’m getting used to that. Then came my final proof-read, after which DAW did another one, just to make sure.

And then just a few days ago, right before Christmas, a box of author copies arrived.

Happy?

You betcha.

You can place an advance order now, and from 11th January 2022 onwards, you can get a copy here…

PenguinRandomHouse
Amazon.co.uk Book/Kindle
Amazon.com Book/Kindle
Barnes & Noble Book/Nook
Books A Million
Bookshop.Org
Hudson Booksellers
Indiebound
Powells
Target
Walmart
Ebooks also from: Google Play Store and Kobo

I will very happily send you a signed bookplate via email – personalised if requested. You can contact me via my website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk

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Countdown to The Amber Crown – Three Weeks to Go!

The Amber Crown is out on 11th January and TODAY my author copies arrived.

Whoo-hoo.

I have so many people to thank for this book. I only wrote it. Luckily I get the opportunity to name names in the book’s acknowledgements… as follows…

This book has been a long time in the making. Though an author’s name goes on the front cover, behind the scenes many people work to bring the book into the world. I owe a huge debt to my editor, Sheila Gilbert, managing editor Joshua Starr, and all at DAW, copy editor, Shoshana Seid-Green, proofreaders and publicists. They are simply the nicest people to work with.

Also thanks to Donald Maass, my agent, whose writing advice is always excellent, and always valued.

Thank you to my beta readers and people who have addressed specific research questions, including Carl Allery, Mihaela Marija Perkovic, Sue Thomason, Martha Hubbard, and Scarlett de Courcier. Some of those research questions ended up with me taking things out of the book rather than adding them in, but that’s okay. Also to my long-time friend and band-mate, Hilary Halpin, who takes it as a personal challenge to find as many typos in my manuscript as she possibly can!

(Band? What band? See www.artisan-harmony.com if you’re curious.)

Thank you to the members of Northwrite SF who suffered through many versions of this: Gus Smith, Terry Jackman, John Moran, David Lascelles, Tina Anghelatos, Shellie Horst, Liz Sourbutt, Sue Oke, Tony Ballantyne and Cheryl Sonnier. Special thanks to Kari Sperring for helping me to find the right title.

Also thanks to attendees of Milford SF Writers’ Conference (MilfordSF.co.uk) who critiqued chunks of this at different stages of its development, from the first twinkling of an idea in 2006 to the final revisions.

More than thanks are due to my family, who put up with a lot when I’m obsessively up to my ears in a manuscript. Love you.

A huge thank-you to you for reading. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read my other novels, the Psi-Tech trilogy, and the Rowankind trilogy. Details of my books and short stories are on my website www.jaceybedford.co.uk, where you’ll also find my contact details. I’m always happy to hear from readers, writers and reviewers. I do answer all emails personally, though not always immediately. You can also follow my writing blog at jaceybedford.wordpress.com/ (here) or my twitter feed at @jaceybedford, or my facebook page: www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer.

But mainly… I would really love you to sign up to my mailing list. www.jaceybedford.co.uk/contact.htm. I promise I’ll not flood your inbox with emails, but I will send news of new short stories and books.

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Countdown to The Amber Crown

It’s here is just four weeks! Published by DAW on 11th January 2022 my seventh book is already getting some good reviews/previews, and I’m revving up to do a blog tour. It’s available in Trade Paperback or e-edition, with the regular sized paperback following sometime later in 2022.

I’m delighted to say that I’m getting an online book launch on 11th January. If you want notification and details, go here to sign up to my Mailchimp mailing list, or keep an eye on my website.

Publishers Weekly calls it a ‘spellbinding fantasy,’ and says, ‘Fantasy readers will find plenty to enjoy.’

Druid Life says, ‘I always enjoy stories that make me complicit with problematic characters, and Jacey does an excellent job of persuading us to like the assassin. All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions. The story is compelling and nicely paced.’

I can’t believe publication is coming up so soon. I seem to have been working on this book forever. I already had a first draft completed in July 2013 when DAW bought my novels Winterwood, Empire of Dust and the still-to-be-written Crossways. Another three books followed (Silverwolf, Nimbus and Rowankind) which pretty much accounted for all my writing time between 2013 and 2018. With Rowankind delivered to DAW, I was at liberty to take another look at the book which I called ‘The Baltic Novel’ for such a long time. Even after I finished redrafting it I still didn’t have a good title until I finally hit on The Amber Crown which fitted like a glove. I adore the cover DAW has given it.

Here’s the back cover copy.

The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.

Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.

Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.

Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.

Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?

If that tickles your fancy I would love you to pre-order now.
PenguinRandomHouse
Amazon.co.uk Book/Kindle
Amazon.com Book/Kindle
Barnes & Noble Book/Nook
Books A Million
Bookshop.Org
Hudson Booksellers
Indiebound
Powells
Target
Walmart
Ebooks also from: Google Play Store and Kobo

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David Barnett: Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl – for your reading pleasure

Gideon Smith, son of a Whitby fisherman from Sandsend is an aficionado of the true adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the British Empire, so when his father’s fishing boat is found floating, abandoned, with all the crew lost, Gideon goes looking for answers. There’s a strange creature walking the night, one that’s scarily reminiscent of a mummy described in one of Trigger’s tales, and strange goings on at Lythe Bank. He meets writer Bram Stoker, himself investigating another unexplained abandoned ship and the strange tale of a fierce black dog that came ashore. Unconvinced that Stoker’s quest (with Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Dracula’s widow) is tied to his own Gideon heads for London to seek help from the redoubtable Captain, on the way rescuing Maria, an automaton powered by pistons, but with a human brain. Once in the capital, a city of stinks, mechanical marvels and plenty of reminders that the British Empire is enormous following the failure of the American War of Independence, he and Maria seek Trigger with the dubious help from a potty-mouthed Fleet Street journalist, Bent. They are bound for disappointment, but gradually a story unfolds that draws all the separate strands together. A super, steampunky romp with vampires, mummified beasties, airships and automata that starts in Whitby, moves to London, Egypt and back to London again. Well-paced this is only the start of Gideon’s adventures due to a large dangling thread at the end.

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Seanan McGuire: Every Heart a Doorway – for your reading pleasure

Nancy is sent to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children because her parents can’t cope with her. They think she has a screw loose and don’t believe that she’s been through a portal into another world, a world of the dead which has left her both changed, and longing to go back.

Nancy discovers all the students there have their own story, their own world (each one very different from the others) and their own longings to return. Miss West is, herself, a returnee, so she understands and knows that for most of the children a return to their particular world is impossible, so she teaches them how to get on with life in the only world they have.

Nancy is barely unpacked when the first murder happens. The authorities generally turn a blind eye to happenings at the school, but they can’t totally ignore a murder, and they certainly wouldn’t ignore two… or three.

It’s up to Nancy and her fellow students to catch the killer. There’s a good cast of somewhat unusual characters who don’t fit in, not only because of their fairyland experiences, but there’s some gender fluidity – a trans teen, an asexual teen, etc. Even so it doesn’t feel as though Ms McGuire is simply ticking the diversity boxes, all the characters have a part to play. I’m not entirely sure if this is aimed at YA. It would certainly be suitable for older teens, but reads well for adults, too. This is a novella, but perfect at the length it is. Very enjoyable.

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Paul Cornell: Five Lychford Novellas – for your reading pleasure

I read each of these novellas as they were published. Each one stands alone, but together the five novellas make a complete story cycle.

The Witches of Lychford A neat novella set in a sleepy Gloucestershire town threatened with the coming of a supermarket. Opinion is divided as to whether it’s a good idea or not, But Judith, the town’s resident witch knows that it will be a magical disaster of epic proportions. Building a new supermarket and altering the roads around the town centre will open ancient gateways and let in evil, potentially causing the apocalypse. At the heart of the supermarket proposal is a man–if man he is–who embodies the evil. All that stands against him is a seventy-something year old witch with no friends, the local magic shop proprietor with a reputation for mental health problems, and the town’s new (female) vicar with a tragedy in her past and a crisis of faith looming over her.

The Lost Child of Lychford. The three witches of Lychford are challenged once again when a ghost child finds its way into Lizzie’s church. What does it want? When Lizzie realises that it’s the ghost of a child still happily living in Lychford she enlists the help of her two witchy friends, Judith Mawson and Autumn, the local witchcraft shop owner, to track down the significance of the apparition. They’re on a deadline. Christmas is coming and unless they can do something about a magical incursion it may never arrive. Each one of them faces a personal challenge. This is the second of Paul Cornell’s Lychford novellas and the characters continue to develop. Lovely.

A Long Day in Lychford. Lizzy, Judith and Autumn are the three resident witches of Lychford, a sleepy Gloucestershire town. It’s up to them to solve disappearances, but in the wake of Brexit Autumn is questioning her place in Lychford because of her skin colour, and Judith is struggling to keep herself together and pass on her knowledge to Lizzy and Autumn before it’s too late. When people start to go missing, our trio discover that they are being pulled across boundaries. There’s political trouble at home and trouble in the world of faerie, too. Each woman is on her own to rescue a particular group of strayed humans. Cornell managed to bring real world concerns into the magical world and the wave of anti-foreigner sentiment affects Lychford, too. A thoroughly enjoyable read, if a little uncomfortable at times as the three women’s sentiments are laid bare.

The Lights Go Out in Lychford. This is the fourth of Paul Cornell’s Lychford novellas featuring Lizzie, the Anglican vicar, Judith Mawson, elderly hedge witch and wise-woman and Autumn, her apprentice wise woman and magic-shop owner. The three of them keep Lychford free of magical threats. The not-so-sleepy village lies on a confluence between magical worlds, and threats seem to come out of nowere. Judith, always a little ‘odd’ has Alzheimers. She has moments of clarity but also moments of confusion. Her son, Shaun, who knows about his mum’s magic, is contemplating putting her in a home, but for the moment is waiting to see how things develop. When Autumn figures out that there’s a magical threat and she and Lizzie track it down to a woman named Picton who is offering ‘wishes’ with all the potential damage they can do if carried out literally.. With Judith only intermittently helpful, they think they’ve discovered what Picton is and neutralised her, but the threat much more than they thought, and might even change reality itself. In the end it’s Judith who is the key. I love these novellas. There’s a delightful interplay between the three main characters. I admit I had to brush away a tear or two at the end.

Last Stand in Lychford. With Judith gone, it’s up to Autumn (magic shop owner) and Lizzie (vicar) to save the sleepy Cotswold town of Lychford from an incursion of enemy magic which will not only destroy the town, but the universe as well. Right, then… better not muck it up, ladies. The enemy intends to destroy all borders between worlds to the detrement of the fae and the humans. Judith might be gone, but she’s certainly not forgotten, and she’s left help. There’s a new viewpoint character, Zoya, a Ukrainian immigrant single mum who has mysteriously been unaffected by the magical rain which made the townsfolk able to sense magic (which makes her wonder “why everyone here is now bugfuck crazy in the head”). Expect exploding fairies, the return of a previous antagonist, a message from beyond the grave, some gruesome deaths, and three brave women trying to save the universe. It’s a satisfying end to the Lychford cycle.

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The Amber Crown’s First Review

Though it’s not due out until 11th January 2022, ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) are going out now, and the first review of The Amber Crown is here on Nimue Brown’s blog. It’s a very considered and thoughtful review without giving away any spoilers. Go and take a look.

“All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions.”

“If you like your fantasy on the dark side without it glorifying the more horrific elements, this book will suit you well.”

I found the approach to language exceptional and highly effective. But then, Jacey is steeped in the folk tradition and it shows in the work.”

It’s published on both sides of the Atlantic, so you can pre-order it now:but Amazon.co.uk doesn’t quite seem to have its act together yet. It’s ‘trade paperback’ i.e. large format paperback. The regular size will come out somewhen: PenguinRandomHouse / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com Book/Kindle / Barnes & Noble Book/Nook / Books A Million / Bookshop.Org / Hudson Booksellers / Indiebound

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Lois McMaster Bujold: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – Vorkosiverse #16 – for your reading pleasure

If, like me, you are a fan of not only Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing in general, but her Vorkosigan series in particular, you probaby grabbed it on its first day of publication. I jumped the gun and shelled out for the e-arc from Baen in advance of the official publication day on 2nd February 2016. I’m so glad I did. Every book that Ms Bujold writes is subtly different. Stories set in the Vorkosiverse have varied from military SF, through murder-mysteries, conspiracy plots and even Regency romance in space. Apart from the first two, now offered as the omnibus: Cordelia’s Honour, most of the others feature the hyperactive Miles Vorkosigan, stunted runt with a brain the size of a planet. This book takes us back to Cordelia, some forty odd years after the events in Cordelia’s Honour where as captain of a Betan astronomical survey ship she unwittingly landed her ship and crew in the middle of a war and met the love of her life Aral Vorkosigan.

Cordelia has been there throughout Miles’ adventures, often on the sidelines, but always a force of nature. Now, three years after Aral’s death, she’s back in her own right. Yes, that’s right – kudos to Ms Bujold she has a heroine in her seventies (though Cordelia’s lifespan could well reach 120 or more as she’s a Betan, so seventy is the new fifty). Even so, a fifty year old heroine? Respect! (Bujold has, of course pulled this off before in her fantasy novel Paladin of Souls, set in her Five Gods version of Earth.)

So Cordelia, three years a widow and still Viscerine of Sergyar, ruling in the name of Emperor Gregor, decides that it’s time to make some changes. Aral’s death has left a hole in her life and in her heart, but with a potential fifty years left to her it’s time she did something for herself. It’s no accident that the cover has strands of DNA twirling across it as Cordelia decides it’s time to give forty-something year old Miles some siblings, courtesy of frozen eggs and sperm which she and Aral ‘banked’ many years earlier, and which she now has legal control over.

Admiral Oliver Jole, Aral’s one time protégé and now admiral in charge of the Sergyar fleet, finds himself unexpectedly drawn into Cordelia’s plans which, in turn, causes a re-examination of his own life and aspirations.

Miles, now Count of the Vorkosigan district since Aral’s death, but also a ferociously dogged Imperial Auditor, comes to investigate his mother’s plans and finds more than he bargained for.

No further spoilers. Read the book. Compared to a lot of Vorkosigan books this one is quite domestic in nature, but it manages to cover the ins and outs of developing a colony on a planet with bio-systems still barely explored, plus the reproductive technology that Cordelia introduced into the Barrayaran system and which – forty some years ago – saved baby Miles’ life.

It’s also a thorough character study of old and new protagonists. I don’t remember Jole from other books (though he appears to have been a very minor character and I must go back and re-read) but now in retrospect we see that things were somewhat different to our imaginings. We learn a lot about the retrospectives of Aral, Cordelia and Jole’s lives, together and separately, and so – to his surprise – does Miles.

While not a comedy this is funny and sweet while remaining intriguing. Highly recommended.

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Andy Weir: The Martian – for your reading pleasure

I galloped through this book in two days, ignoring my own pressing work and letting the family sort itself out because I couldn’t put it down. I’m sure everyone has heard the plot by now: astronaut, Mark Watney, left behind on Mars when a mission has to be aborted suddenly, and then finds himself having to ‘science the shit’ out of everything in order to stay alive until the next Mars mission arrives. First he has to make running repairs to his EVA suit in order to get back to the habitat, and then he has to stitch the puncture wound in his side. After that he has to work out how to feed himself after the mission supplies have run out and has to repair and repurpose everything he can find. Nothing is wasted, from human waste to the tiniest little bolt or clip. Every page (written mostly as log entries) presents a new problem to be solved and one by one Watney solves them while the whole population of earth waits with bated breath to see whether the various ideas for a rescue mission are going to fly. (Sometimes literally!) It’s an absorbing read, an extreme ‘man against the environment’ story. I read the book after seeing the movie and even though I had a fair idea of what was going to happen, I was still thoroughly gripped. Probably the best book I’ve read in a long time.

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First Person Narrative – a guest post by Juliet E McKenna

Thoughts on writing a first person narrative when that person isn’t you.

Early reviews for The Green Man’s Challenge are coming in, and readers are commenting favourably on the way Dan Mackmain’s character comes vividly off the page. This isn’t the first time; an email from a satisfied reader of The Green Man’s Foe remarked about one incident, ‘honestly, Daniel’s such a bloke!’ This is intensely gratifying for me as the author, because Dan is so many things I am not, and as the central character in these stories, if he’s not believable, the whole book will fall apart. So how does a happily settled mid-50s woman write convincingly from the viewpoint of a man just turning 30 who works as a self-employed carpenter moving from place to place?

It certainly helps that I’ve been writing for over twenty years and more than twenty novels. My first book, The Thief’s Gamble, was centred around a first-person narrative, but Livak was a woman a decade or so younger than me, so I could draw on my own experience, and on my enduring friendships with other women. I faced a considerable challenge when I wrote the following novel, The Swordsman’s Oath, from a male character’s point of view. As I said at the time, I owed a great deal to my male beta readers; particularly my husband and close male friends who didn’t hesitate to tell me what I needed to know about the male perspective, ideally over a pint or two.

Writing those early books, it helped that my hobbies have included a good few male-dominated activities. At university and through my twenties, I enjoyed Live Action Role-Playing. I’ve done tabletop gaming since university, and also studied the martial art, aikido. I wasn’t consciously studying the men around me at the time, but when I was writing a scene where I needed to portray a convincing male reaction or interaction, I could frequently think back to some occasion where a conversation or disagreement showed me the best line to take. This is still the case. Add to that, over the years I’ve had some interesting chats with police officers, paramedics, nurses, social workers and door staff over post-aikido pints. These professionals frequently find themselves dealing with young men behaving unwisely to say the least, when aikido skills are invaluable for staying safe without having to meet aggression with aggression. Their anecdotes offer me further insights into attitudes that are a world away from my own.

Then there are the resources I have closer to home, namely my twenty-something sons, godsons and their assorted friends. I don’t interrogate them, notebook in hand, because that would be weird, but I can check what I am writing against the way they speak, the references they use, and the concerns they have about work, relationships and money. All these aspects of their lives are very different to the decades when I was their age. And yes, if I’m not sure I’ve got something right, I ask. Grounding any fantasy solidly in reality is essential if readers are to make that step into believing in the monsters and magic. That’s a challenge writing a secondary world, epic fantasy. It’s twice as hard when you’re writing about this world, in the here and now. Thankfully my sons are as helpful as they are amused by such queries.

For writers who don’t have esoteric hobbies or convenient relatives, endless information can be found in non-fiction. I’ve read any number of memoirs and autobiographies by soldiers, sailors and airmen, explorers and adventurers, from historical eras to the modern day. There’s recently been a flurry of very interesting books written by doctors. Obviously Dan’s not a medic or anything of those other things, but such books show me the different ways in which a range of personalities will address a particular challenge. Since Dan’s concerned with rural affairs, I’ve recently been reading James Rebanks’ writing, and (heaven help me) watching the Clarkson’s Farm series from Amazon Prime video. Documentaries offer further ranges of perspectives – unlike ‘reality’ TV which is as artificial as its participants’ smiles.

Juliet E. McKenna

All this has shown me something very interesting about writing from Dan’s point of view. Very little of his outlook outside the bedroom is specifically or intrinsically related to his gender. People are definitely influenced by the different expectations and pressures they face from an early age, and many of those are undoubtedly based on whether they’re seen as a boy or a girl, but those things come from outside, not from within. Whether someone’s lively and outgoing, more reserved, or somewhere in between, isn’t determined by one particular set of chromosomes, and the same is true of other character traits. External factors like family circumstance, upbringing, social class, education and life experience play a hugely significant role in shaping anyone’s personality.

So the fact that I am a happily settled mid-50s woman does not mean I can’t write convincingly from the viewpoint of a man just turning 30 – or from the perspective of anyone else who isn’t me. However it does mean that I have to put in a good deal of work to do it well. Whatever I write, the further a character’s life might be from my own experiences, the more research I need to do. Above all else, I need listen to people who know a lot more about the reality of their own lives than I ever can. As I do that, I learn far more than simply how to write.

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Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway: Modesty Blaise – The Gabriel Set-Up – for your reading pleasure

I’ve always been a big Modesty Blaise fan, coming to the novels first (in my teens) long before I realised that the character originated from the serialised graphic strip which first appeared in The Evening Standard (one of the Beaverbrook newspapers) in 1963. This collection of four stories reprinted from the original newspaper strips features black and white artwork by the late Jim Holdaway. (Literally black and white, not greyscale.)

I often have trouble with graphic novels because I’m not used to the style and I find some of the artwork difficult to ‘read’. Whether that’s my fault for poor interpretation, or the artist’s fault for poor execution, I don’t know, however with this simple line-drawing style I have no trouble at all. Holdaway’s characters are very easily differentiated from one another and the action is crystal clear.

The stories: La Machine, The Long Leaver, The Gabriel Set-Up and In the Beginning are typical Modesty stories. La Machine is her first introduction to the British Secret Service’s favourite civil servant, Sir Gerald Tarrant and his sidekick, Fraser.

Modesty is a capable female protagonist in her own right, kick-ass but feminine, sexually independent, fiercely intelligent and with a background in organised crime but a sound moral compass. Her sidekick, the equally capable Willie Garvin has been reborn in Modesty’s service. Starting out as a mean fighting machine, Modesty has given him her trust and he’s picked it up and run with it, turning into her loyal right-hand man. Their non-sexual love story underpins the whole Modesty Blaise oeuvre. They are partners who trust each other totally, but they are capable of working independently and they don’t own each other. There is no hint of jealousy when they take lovers, long term or one-night stands. They love each other, but they are not in love, neither are they lovers.

Three of the stories are set in Modesty and Willie’s present, but in the beginning is Modesty’s origin story as a refugee child walking through the Middle East in the aftermath of war, educated by life and a displaced professor whom she protects. Modesty ends up running a crime network and for six years Modestly and Willie fight and scheme and bleed together, tending each other’s hurts and growing very rich. The Modesty Blaise stories are set after Modesty and Willie have retired from their life of crime and realised that settling down is difficult for a pair of adrenaline junkies.

I recommend the novels heartily and this reproduction to the early comic strips is a lovely way to revisit Modesty’s adventures.

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Random Pics from Milford 2021 to Give You a Flavour of the Week

Jacey, Dolly, and Pete with Georgina and Pauline (back). That’s water in my glass, honest.
Critique session
Dolly, Jim, Pete, Liz W, David, Sue, Charlotte (back) – simply walking into Mordor.
Mordor. (Abandoned slate quarry workings.)
Jeremy, Sue, Pete, Tiffani, Matt, Jim, Dolly, Trevor, Jacey, Pauline, Charlotte, Liz W, Terry, David, Georgina, Liz T.
Jeremy, Sue, Pete, Tiffani, Matt, Jim, Dolly, Trevor, Jacey, Pauline, Charlotte, Liz W, Terry, David, Georgina, Liz T.
Milford in a plague year.
Dolly found a good place to write.
Sue, Jacey, Liz and the sign Trigonos made for us. Spot the deliberate mistake.
Trigonos’s lake frontage

Can’t wait to go back there.

We still have places for the writing retreat in May 2022.

All places for the Milford critique week in September 2022 are booked up but we operate a waiting list system. We are now accepting bookings for the Milford retreat and Milford critique week in 2023. See the website.

http://www.milfordSF.co.uk

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Judith Tarr: Forgotten Suns for your reading pleasure

On the deserted world of Nevermore, a family of archaeologists labours to uncover ancient mysteries despite the threat of funding cuts which will lead to the United Planets stripping the planet’s resources in a legal invasion.

Nevermore presents a conundrum. If the people of this world had suffered a wipeout after some apocalyptic upheaval there would be evidence, but there isn’t. The buildings have crumbled, but all the records, statuary, art and artefacts have all disappeared. There are no skeletons, nothing to say whether the inhabitants were humanoid or alien. While her parents struggle to understand the mystery of the ruins and fight to retain the funding that will protect the project, and the world, Aisha accidentally blows the top off a mountain revealing a strange being, a living tyreasure. Human in appearance, Rama is even stranger than he first appears. Dressed in rags, but wearing enough gold artefacts to stock a small museum, and quite mad in a compelling way, he begins a quest to find Nevermore’s missing population. They’ve only been gone for five thousand years, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Aisha’s Aunt Khalida, a Military Intelligence officer is on leave after a mission that broke her. She’s living with the burden of guilt too big for any one person to carry and Psycorps patent fix hasn’t taken. Now both the MI and Psycorps want her back on duty. She’s forced to return to Ariceli, the world where she committed the ultimate war crime, to negotiate a peace – at least that’s what they say. It just happens that Ariceli is also Rama’s first port of call… and Aisha is not letting him go gallivanting round the universe without her. She’s desperately trying to find a justification for the continued funding of the Nevermore expedition and Rama is the likely key.

The question of who is Rama? turns into the question of what is Rama? Aisha may be the only person tying together disparate strands which all belong to the same puzzle.

Of course it’s all a lot more complex than that. Everyone has their own agenda: Rama is still searching, following a trail of breadcrumbs; Khalida has to prevent one of the factions in her peace negotiation from blowing the whole planet of Ariceli apart; Aisha is searching for anything that will help her parents.

When the three of them rescue an enslaved sentient ship a chase across the universe ends up as a journey through the multiverse. Rama must not only find his people but must also fulfil an ancient prophesy, one that’s likely to kill him and anyone who helps him.

Psionic powers and magic mesh with science in this enthralling adventure. Characterisation, human and non-human, is complex and layered. Determined Aisha. Cocksure Rama. Damaged Khalida. They all have a part to play. The setting is a multiverse full of diverse worlds from Nevermore to Ariceli and Starsend via a free-trader’s hub in the company of a worldly wise opera singer, a renegade Psychorps lieutenant and a boatload of angry scientists. The writing is often lyrical without being overblown, the tension is well-wrought and the pace fairly rattles along. Highly recommended.

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At Milford 2021

It finally happened. After last year’s Covid cancellation, Milford 2021 is finally happening. I drove across to North Wales on Saturday morning with Georgina Kamsika. We picked up Terry Jackman on the way (at Lymm Services) and had an uneventful drive along the coast road to Caernarfon, and then just a little further to Nantlle, where Trigonos sits on the edge of the lake.

Photo by Liz Williams

Throughout Saturday afternoon fifteen writers gathered – this year from all over England, though some are Americans living in England. We usually get a few people from overseas, but wisely the people coming from America and Japan deferred to 2022 because of Covid travel restrictions.

Milford has a policy of reserving five of the fifteen places for Milford newbies, so I know ten of the writers well, but it’s lovely to welcome new people. I’m pleased to say everyone fits in really well. After dinner we all gathered in the library. It’s a Milford thing that we take conversational utterances out of context – just because we can. These are some of the ones from Saturday night in the library.

“The best thing about a question is how it illuminates the questioner.”
“What do you think about postage stamps?”

“It’s like my entire three hours of life coaching counts for nothing.”

“I can’t even say, ‘Hopefully people don’t die,’ in my line of work.”

“Mine’s like a drunken spider on its way to Odd Bins.”

“Did you say critgasm?”
“No, I said crit-induced aneurysm.”
“I like critgasm better.”

The real work started on Sunday with the first formal critique session, and my story was up first. I brought a potential novel beginning called The Long Long Time of Jornish Marum.’ I wasn’t nervous, even if people don’t like your story they give constructive critique to help improve it. Luckily people seemed to like this, though there were many suggestions, helpful, of course, and some of them sparked off more ideas, so later that evening I started in on a new chapter – only a couple of thousand words, but enough to get the creative juices flowing.

Milford always recharges my writerly batteries. I wish I could say the same for my watch battery – which died yesterday morning. I keep glancing at my empty wrist – most annoying. Liz’s partner Trevor is going into Penygroes this morning, so he’s taking my watch to see if the ironmonger does batteries. Fingers crossed.

We’re just over halfway through the Milford week, now. Two more days of critique and then, on Friday, a day out, though we haven’t decided where that will be, yet. It partly depends on the weather. If it’s really wet we sometimes end up at Electric Mountain, the hydro-electric power plant built deep inside the mountain at Dinorwic. They give you a hard hat and then take you into the mountain on a bus. The turbine hall is big enough to swallow St Paul’s Cathedral. When you come out you have the distinct feeling that you know what it would be like to live inside a hollowed-out asteroid. Yes, I’ve been before, three times, but quite a few of this year’s Milford have not, so I don’t mind going again. Last time (2019) we went to Criccieth for a look at the castle and lunch at Dylan’s a superb fish restaurant almost on the beach. We don’t all have to go to the same place, but it’s fun when we do.

Sunrise at Trigonos. Photo by Jim Anderson
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The Subtle (and Unsubtle) Art of Critiquing

At the end of August I did a post about the run up to Milford.

It starts next Saturday so I’m deep into reading and critiquing the 23 pieces submitted by the fifteen attendees. I’m obviously not going to comment on any of those pieces because that wouldn’t be fair, but I can talk about critiquing in general.

I belong to two groups/organisations which exist to critique. One is Milford, established in the UK in 1972 by James Blish who brought the idea over from Milford Pennsylvania. Milford’s conference week for published SF writers happens once a year in September, and I’ve been attending most years since 1998. Eventually they had to give me a job to do, so I’m the current secretary. Milford is open to any published SF writer. (And by published we mean at least one short story to a recognised market.)

The other group I belong to is NorthwriteSF, a small quarterly face to face group that meets at my house, or by Zoom in these Covid times. We take our lead from Milford in the type of critiquing we do. All our members (eleven in total) have been published. Most have attended at least one Milford, though that’s not a prerequisite.

Milford is limited to fifteen participants who are allowed to submit up to 10-12,000 words in one or two pieces. Northwrite has a limit of up to 10,000 words in just one piece. Not every member attends every quarter, but we usually have seven to nine people attending. As you can appreciate the reading load is heavy for both Milford and Northwrite. We had one applicant who came to one Northwrite meeting as a trial, but it was obvious that we weren’t going to suit each other. After the meeting she admitted that she’d felt like a fish out of water because the level of critique was (in her words) like a masterclass.

I think that’s because a lot of our critique is aimed to make a piece (short story or book) more saleable. The ultimate aim of every author who attends either Milford or Northwrite is to have their book or story published, and the ultimate aim of people critiquing is to help the book/story on its way.

The Milford Method

  • Milford rules allow even the shyest member’s voice to be heard.
  • Constructive rather than destructive criticism is strongly encouraged. It’s the work being critiqued, not the individual authors, so no ad hominem attacks.
  • The group meets in a comfortable room with chairs drawn up in a circle.
  • Each participant, in rotation, spends up to four minutes (timed) giving their critique of the work at hand.
  • Everyone gets the opportunity to open the critting.
  • No interruption, whether by the author or anyone else, is allowed during this stage of the proceedings.
  • After everyone has spoken the author gets an uninterrupted right of reply.
  • This is followed by a more general discussion.
  • It’s customary for the critee to scribble copious notes, but the critter normally gives the crittee a written version of their crit or maybe their original MS with notes, or emails it afterwards.
Milford 2017 – Photo: Matt Colborn

There is no One True Way

I used to be on the (long list) selection committee of the Carnegie and Greenaway medals (for the best written and best illustrated children’s book of that particular year). For the Carnegie Medal we had to assess on plot, characterisation and style. They are still three great building blocks, and well worth examining closely.

We all take a slightly different approach to critique and from this wide variety of reactions to a story (or book excerpt) we get a good spread of feedback. I tend to give crits based on reactions to a first reading because a reader of a magazine, or someone who has just picked up your novel in a bookshop (or on Amazon) and read the first few pages, won’t give your story a second chance if it doesn’t grab their attention immediately. I make notes as I go though, picking out things I don’t quite get, or things that are not explained clearly enough. I’m looking for places where a protagonist acts out of character, places where the pace flags, or perhaps where it gets too frenetic, and places where the author has missed an opportunity to let the character show how the events are affecting him/her (show not tell). Sometimes my critique might say that this idea doesn’t support a 7,000 word story but if the author can cut the flab and get it down to below 5,000 words, it will be more saleable a) because the pace will be much better, and b) a fair proportion of short story markets will not accept submissions of over 5,000 words, so there will be more places to send it to.

These are the way some of my writer friends approach a critique in the first instance:

  • J.M. always starts his crits by asking: what does the protagonist want? He analyses the story and asks whether the protagonist gets what he wants. Sometimes the answer is: no, but he/she gets what he/she needs.
  • S.T. analyses a story from a philosophical standpoint and assesses character motivations and the rights and wrongs of characters’ actions.
  • J.F. is a wizz at plot logic and can pick holes in any plot that has holes to be picked.
  • T.J. looks at (amongst other things) grammar and spelling and tends to do a copy edit on a manuscript which is amazingly helpful.

Critiques should build rather than destroy. So though there is no one true way to critique just as there in no one true way to write, there are starting points. What will yours be?

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Ian Whates: Pelquin’s Comet: The Dark Angels #1 – for your reading pleasure

Space opera, adventure, treasure hunting, a motley crew, aliens and some corporate intrigue are the building blocks that form this science fiction tale from Ian Whates. Pelquin is a free trader/ The Comet, his ship, and motley crew, bear some resemblance to the Fireflyesque scenario (no bad thing in my book) in which a rag-tag bunch of adventurers skirt the barely legal side of free trade amongst a collection of worlds. Pelquin, the captain has a lead on a cache of valuable alien artefacts, but to get at them he needs to finance his expedition with a hefty loan from the First Solar Bank. He gets the loan, but also acquires a sharp-suited banker, Drake, who is a lot more than he seems to be, and, when his engineer, Monkey, is injured, Pel casually acquires a young woman replacement who’s not quite sure who or what she is, but super-soldier wouldn’t be far off the mark. This is a set-up book for more adventures and so there are a lot of potential avenues unexplored, but on this first showing I’d be happy to read more books set in the dark Angels universe. Some questions are answered, more are asked, so if (like me) you like your spaceship crews a little rough and ready. Morally ambiguous while retaining the general designation of good-guys, this is for you. It’s well-paced, twisty and gives a good glimpse into the possibilities of Pelquin’s universe. Oh, and it’s got a gorgeous cover – art by Jim Burns.

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The run up to Milford.

I’m very busy with the day job this week. I’m a music booking agent for folk-type artists from a Canadian-Cowboy bluegrassy duo called Over the Moon, to a troupe of Zulu singers and dancers from KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, called Zulu Tradition. There are performers from the USA and Canada as well as British artists. I have to find gigs for them UK-wide and organise their tours. This is my current crop of lovely performers.

I’m also a UK Government licensed sponsor, which means I can issue Certificates of Sponsorship (think of them a electronic work permits) for artists coming in to play in the UK from abroad. After eighteen months of no music agency work other than rearranging gigs from 2020 to 2021, and then from 2021 to 2022, everyone has suddenly woken up and I’m getting lots of requests for CoS. There are two different ways of using them. Nationals from countries whose citizens don’t require a visa for leisure travel to the UK can come in and work in Tier 5 (entertainment) on a Certificate of Sponsorship. These include citizens of America, Canada, Europe, Australia etc. But nationals from countries whose citizens do require a visa for leisure travel, also have to get a visa to work here. So they need to take the CoS that I issued and make an application for a visa (called entry clearance) before travelling. This includes countries like Russia, China, African countries and some South American countries. It’s not straightforward and in these days of our ‘hostile environment’ visas are sometimes (very frustratingly) refused on the flimsiest of reasons, even if the musicians were only coming in for three days to play at a major festival. (Some of you might remember that in 2018/19 the WOMAD festival had half its artists denied visas.)

So that’s what I do when I’m not writing.

Milford Critique session in progress.

I’m busier than usual because I’m trying to cram three weeks of day-job work into one week because I’m going to Milford in September and I’ve set aside one week to prepare for it and one week to attend. Why so much preparation? Milford is a week of peer-group critique. There are no leaders and no followers. Fifteen writers are kettled up together in a not-so-secret location in North Wales. We each take something that we’re currently working on, up to an upper limit of 12,000 words, in one or two pieces. Mornings are free time to catch up with reading and critting. Afternoons are formal crit sessions, and evenings are social time. The standard of critique is high, but remains professional and delivered as supportively as possible. Fifteen people attend which means each one of us has to read and critique up to 168,000 words. (14 x 12,000) While it’s possible to use mornings for critiquing, it would be mad not to do as much critiquing as possible beforehand.

I attended my first Milford in 1998 before I’d ever sold a book. I had, however sold one story to a DAW anthology – which is the minimum qualification for attending Milford. The story I took later became my first published book, Empire of Dust, though it underwent many edits in the intervening years. I can say, though, that without Milford I might never have sold that first book, as my introduction to my editor came through a writer I met at Milford.

James Blish brought Milford to the UK in 1972 (it had been running in Milford Pennsylvania since 1956.) It settled in Milford on Sea to begin with, and then moved around to several different locations. It was in Devon when I first attended, but for the last 15 or 16 years it’s been at Trigonos in a tiny Welsh village called Nantlle. Trigonos has lovely grounds and marvellous views. It even has its own lake frontage.

Many of the best known names in SF/F writing have attended including: George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey, Neil Gaiman, Alastair Reynolds, Brian Aldiss, Bruce Sterling, Christopher Priest, Diana Wynne Jones, Samuel R Delany, and Liz Williams. If you write science fiction and/or fantasy, you should consider applying to attend Milford, not only for critique, but for networking, and for a jolly lovely week in the wilds of scenic Snowdonia. I’m looking forward to it, especially after last year’s covid-cancellation.

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Genevieve Cogman: The Invisible Library – For your reading pleasure

This is the first in an ongoing series, and a terrific starting point.

As an ex librarian I have a fondness for anything library-oriented so I wanted to like this a lot – and I did. Genevieve Cogman’s debut novel is a delight.

Irene is a junior librarian – an agent of the Invisible Library which exists between dimensions, but has access to all the alternate earths in the multiverse. It’s purpose is to collect and preserve all the alternate versions of important books that have been published in the various dimensions and the librarians are, essentially, book thieves (or sometimes book-buyers). Getting hold of the book seems more important that the morality of their methodology.

Sent to a steampunky alternate London to collect an important copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales Irene is given the bare minimum of information and saddled with a trainee, the elegant and handsome Kai, who is eager (maybe over-eager) to have a field assignment since he’s been cooped up in the library for the last five years, learning the ropes.

Irene is bonded to the library which gives her certain powers, including being able to speak the language of the library which enables her to convince (mostly) inanimate objects, such as locks to unlock. Kai is not yet bonded but seems to have a skill-set of his own, which is a puzzle to Irene at first.

Irene is wrong-footed, even before crossing over into the alternate London, by Bradamant, once her mentor and now a rival. Bradamant wants the gig of finding the Grimm, but Irene suspects both her motives and her authority, and manages to cross over and leave her behind. In the alternate she’s given, yet again, a bare minimum of information. This steampunk alternate is inhabited not only by humans, but by fae, werewolves and vampires. It’s been infected with chaos, and chaos magic and the library’s own powers don’t mix. The book’s owner, a vampire, has been murdered and the book is missing. Irene goes to investigate and quickly meets Silver, a fae who wants the book, and Vale, the Great Detective – that alternate’s analogue of Sherlock Holmes.

Irene and Kai battle mechanical crocodiles, werewolves, silverfish, Bradamant (again) and, most terrifying of all, a renegade librarian who is known for returning the vital organs of those librarians whose paths have crossed his – mostly in separate, neatly wrapped packages. Zeppelins and mechanical hansom cabs are involved as well as a very proper policeman called Singh and an elderly blackmailer. The action takes place across London, including, of course, the British Library and the British Museum It’s well-paced, inventive and a very satisfying read, with Irene and Kai both being engaging and well-drawn protagonists with their own strengths, weaknesses and backstories. Yes there’s a hint of attraction between them, but this is anything but a corset romance. It’s well worth reading the whole series to see how things develop.

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How to Write a Speculative Fiction Book

I’m not going to be able to teach you how to write a book in the twelve hundred or so words in this blog post – even presuming I have the skills. Yes I’ve written books, seven published so far (including The Amber Crown due in January 2022 from DAW) and a further four that I’m editing. The more I write, the more I realise I don’t know, but here are a few basic tips that I’ve assimilated.

The Big Idea
You need an idea which will give you scope. Sometimes ideas don’t translate into novel length stories. A rich entrepreneur builds a space rocket is an idea, but it’s not a story. A rich entrepreneur has always wanted to walk on the moon since he was a raggedy street urchin, and now he has the resources to build a rocket, but dark government forces are working against him. That’s more of a story because the basic idea has conflict. Person lands on wondrous new planet is an idea, but person lands on wondrous new planet and immediately has to defend it from big corporation wanting to strip its mineral resources is a plot. There has to be the opportunity for forward momentum and maybe a couple of reversals before the book reaches its climax.

Writing Great Characters
We all like our heroes and heroines to be super competent, but let us not make it too easy for them. Give them flaws, physical or mental. Make them work for their good outcome. Litter their path with obstacles; throw in a dollop of pure bad luck; have someone they trust betray them; injure them; hurt (or threaten to hurt) someone they love. Sure they are mostly super competent, but make them human (if they are human). Make us care about them by making them care about something/someone else. Give your character opinions, ideals and standards that will be put to the test. Put your character outside their comfort zone. Give them an emotional reaction that drives them to action. (You could do a lot worse that read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels to see how she takes a four foot six runt with brittle bones, living in a society that values militaristic physical perfection, and has him succeed despite sometimes making bad choices and having to think his way out of potentially deadly situations.)

Building Fantastic Worlds
Even in the most mundane, earthly books, you have to build your world. It might be a Delhi slum, or a central London office, but you still have to define your story’s setting. In fantasy and science fiction your worldbuilding can be extensive, but it has to seem real. You have a fantastic green city in the middle of a parched desert, but what is its history? How was it built? Is it self sufficient? How many people live there? Where does the water come from? Where are the food crops grown? Are there local businesses? Is there industry? Where do raw materials for manufacture come from? How does the city trade? What is the level of science and medicine? What kind of transport is there – both in the city and across the desert? What is the social structure? How is the city governed/policed? What is daily life like? What do people wear? Is there a city-wide religion? Is there magic, if so what are its rules? Are the people content? If not, why not? Patricia Wrede has a series of fantasy worldbuilding questions much more extensive than mine. See here: https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/04/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

Conflict
A book without conflict is like a meal without salt. Conflict is a clash between two opposing forces, internal or external.

  • Person versus self (The Nothing Girl)
  • Person versus environment (The Martian)
  • Person versus person (Night Watch)
  • Person versus bad guys (Harry Dresden)
  • Person versus supernatural (The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep)
  • Person versus society/government (Little Brother)
  • Person versus mystery (A Morbid Taste for Bones)
  • Person versus aliens (Independence Day)
  • Person versus war (Old Man’s War)
  • Person against time (Freeze Frame Revolution)
  • Person versus love – or lack of it (The Other Miss Bridgerton)
  • Person versus history (Azincourt)

Or often a combination of some/all of these things. I’m sure you can think up more examples, and subsets of the above. You have to give your characters a meaningful challenge and see how they rise to meet it.

To Plot or to Pants
I didn’t plot Empire of Dust. I just started writing and let the events happen, though I did have an idea of how it was going to end. Winterwood was tightly plotted in advance, which made it faster to write the first draft. Mostly I prefer a mixture of pantsing and plotting. (Pantsing, by the way, is writing by the seat of your pants.) You need to work out whether you want to plot your book before you write it. Some people feel that once they’ve committed a plot to pixels or paper, they’ve done the hard work and there’s no fun to be had in writing the whole thing out. Others like the structural framework that a preconceived plot has. I like to have a rough idea of where the story is heading, but I want to know that there’s enough flexibility for me to follow a new idea. I usually get a scene in my head, or a situation and I write to explore where it’s going. Sometimes I get ten or twenty thousand words in and then sit down to plot it out. I usually have an idea of the ending, but the middle bit is sometimes covered by stuff happens.

Stuff Happens
If your story is an unconnected series of events it will feel flat. Each event should lead on to the next. Cause and effect. This happens, and because this happens Character does that, which leads to this happening, which causes Villain to take action, which leads to Character doing something spectacular in the story’s climax. See here: https://youtu.be/vGUNqq3jVLg – it’s two minutes of invaluable advice on plotting featuring and then, therefore, or but. Don’t rely on coincidence to get your characters out of trouble (though you can use it to get your characters into trouble). Don’t rescue your characters with a deus ex machina (literally god in the machine) where something pops up to make everything all right without any kind of build up or foreshadowing.

Story Stakes
What will happen if your character/s don’t succeed? Story stakes can be high concept or personal, but there should be a high price for failure. The end of life as we know it. Cruel regime takes over the world. Character (or Character’s loved one) dies. Character loses the love of his/her life. Whether global or personal make the stakes high so that your characters have something to strive for.

Got it? Good. Go write it.

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C.E Murphy: Heart of Stone – Negotiator Trilogy/Old Races Universe #1 – For your reading pleasure

Loved this.
Margrit Knight, a lawyer and negotiator in New York City gets involved with a world she never knew existed when she meets Alban – a gargoyle and one of the Old Races.

Someone is killing women in Central Park and Alban has been framed. Who and why? That’s the big question. Margrit’s homicide detective off-on lover, Tony, thinks he has the answer. Margrit helped to give it to him, but when she listens to Alban’s side of the story she realises that she was too hasty. She also realises that she’s powerfully attracted to the gargoyle (no, he’s not always made of stone) and her rocky relationship with Tony is going to suffer even more.

This is a whodunnit and a whydunnit, but it’s also about race and acceptance. Margrit is black, from a privileged family and has to examine her own prejudices when she discovers beings in NYC who may not be human but dammit, they’re still people. The characters are powerfully drawn, Margrit is a compelling heroine, fiercely intelligent, dedicated to her job (and her clients) and fearless in the face of danger (even when she probably shouldn’t be). The setting and set-up is fascinating and though I’m not usually a sucker for police/lawyer type crime novels the urban fantasy aspects of this drew me right in. I’d like to read more about Margrit and Alban.

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Space Opera

I write science fiction. I’m pretty sure my sub-genre is (so far) space opera. I’m happy with that definition.

I grew up reading my dad’s Lensman books and the distinctive Gollancz yellow jacketed SF which (sadly) I only have a hazy memory of, probably because I was far too young to be galloping through that kind of stuff. I wasn’t aware, then, of any distinction between science fiction and space opera, and I’m still not so sure, now, so I thought I’d look it up. This is what I found.

Apparently the term, Space Opera, was coined back in 1941 as a pejorative in a fanzine article by Wilson Tucker. He defined it as ‘a hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn’. The term was a play on ‘soap opera’ and ‘horse opera’. Indeed some critics likened space opera to cowboy stories set in space – a concept that began with EE Doc Smith’s Skylark books, which were first published in the 1930s. The cowboy in space came full circle in 2002 with Joss Whedon’s much-missed TV series, Firefly.

By the 1960s the term was regarded as less pejorative, and in 1975 the anthology ‘Space Opera’ edited by Brian Aldiss redefined it. Space opera became accepted as ‘the good old stuff.’ The Del-Reys challenged the term yet again, completely rejuvenating it when Del Rey books reissued titles as unashamed space opera.

Following on from Star Trek came the huge popularity of Star Wars and the transformation was complete. Space opera was no longer outmoded and hackish, but was (and still is) riding the crest of a wave in popular culture. By the early 1980s not only the cognoscenti, but the wider public understood the term, and by 1990 it became a legitimate subgenre of science fiction, no longer scorned. Amazon lists over 10,000 books in the Space Opera category featuring authors such as John Scalzi, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert A Heinlein, David Brin, EE Doc Smith, James A Corey, Frank Herbert, Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks, Peter F Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and Arthur C Clarke. There are still huge gaps in my reading. I read Heinlein and EE Doc Smith such a long time ago. I’ve read everything I can find by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I’ve recently been enjoying John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War sequence and his Interdependency books. I loved the Expanse on TV and I’ve made a start on the books, thoroughly enjoying Leviathan Wakes and looking forward to reading the rest of the series..

So what defines space opera? The accepted definition is an adventure story set (mostly) in outer space, but with the added expectation that it will be large in scope, plot and action, colourful and dramatic. Characters will be heroic and sympathetic and romance might be involved. It isn’t always hard science fiction in that it doesn’t always acknowledge the laws of physics and the nature of space as we understand it (though it can do). The galaxy – or even the universe – is no longer constrained by physics. Faster than light travel and wormholes abound, and space battles are often in evidence, so much so that military SF has become a popular sub-genre of space opera in itself.

I’m still finding my way around this fascinating genre. I think my Psi-Tech trilogy falls broadly into the space opera category, though your take may differ. What makes it space opera? Sympathetic characters, space ships, galaxy-spanning, gates through the void (not quite wormholes), space stations, space battles, peril, adventures and a touch of romance. Sounds like space opera to me.

What’s your take on Space Opera?

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Winston Graham: Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall 1783 – 1787

I’m not sure why it’s taken me the best part of forty years and two TV dramatisations to read this book. Perhaps because it was written in the 1940s I assumed the prose style would be a little stodgy, but not a bit of it. This reads like a much more modern novel. Winston Graham had a light touch

In 1783 Captain Ross Poldark, a gentleman, returns to his Cornish home from the American wars. Headstrong and volatile when he left, he’s now more seasoned and prepared to take on the near-derelict family home, Nampara, after the death of his father. He’s anticipating that Elizabeth, the love of his life, will be waiting for him to sweep her off her feet and marry him, but arrives to find her on the point of marrying his wealthier cousin, Francis.

He buries himself in work, repairing the house, cultivating the land, with only his plain cousin, Verity, as a friend. But Ross has the common touch. Despite the Poldark name, he’s always been equally comfortable with the common folks who work the land and the tin and copper mines. He rescues a waif of a girl, Demelza Carne, and takes her in as a kitchen maid, not realising until several years later that she’s grown into a lovely (and loving) young woman. marrying beneath his class causes scandal in the neighbourhood; the Poldarks are considered to be Cornish aristocracy while Demelza is the daughter of a drunken miner.

The story will not be new to anyone who has seen either the Robin Ellis TV version or the current Aidan Turner one. The first season of the current televised version takes incidents from the first two books in the series (there are 12 altogether), but this book ends before the birth of Ross and Demelza’s first child.

Themes include love and loss, class struggle and rivalry, both personal and industrial. (Though in the first book the enmity between Ross and George Warleggan seems relatively unimportant.  Graham’s historical background and setting is well-researched. He captures the world of eighteenth century Cornwall well.

And yes, I did resist using the TV tie in cover with Aidan Turner’s face all over it. Disappointed? Well, here you are then. Ross Poldark as played by Aidan Turner. You’re welcome.

Poldarks old and new. Robin Ellis, Angharad Rees, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner
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What Am I Working On?

C-19 Lockdown hasn’t been a very productive time for me, writing wise. When self-isolating should have given me loads more time to write, for some reason I simply couldn’t get started on anything. I’m not alone in this. Talking to other people it seems that many of us spent too much time studying the C-19 statistics and watching the rolling news.

What could I have done?

I could have written two new novels in fifteen months, or at least two first drafts. I’m not a linguist, but surely I could have found an hour a day to learn a new language, or brush up on my schoolgirl French. When all my shopping had to be done online, I could have made sure that I eliminated biscuits and soft drinks from my weekly grocery delivery. I could have, but I didn’t. I could have taken half an hour a day to walk on the treadmill. Yeah, right!

What did I do?

There were other things besides the rolling news to suck up my time and energy. My day job is booking gigs for musicians. You might think, since no gigs were happening, that I would have had to mothball that, but no, I spent time rearranging gigs from spring 2020 to autumn 2020, then into 2021. Though there are a few gigs going ahead (socially distanced) in summer and autumn 2021, they are few and far between, so I’ve been rearranging yet again from 2021 to 2022. Since an agent doesn’t get paid until the performer does the gig and gets paid themselves, it’s been three times the work for none of the money… but it had to be done.

I knitted two jumpers while watching TV, mostly re-runs of QI on the Dave channel because I like intelligent comedy.

Also my mum, now 96 years old, developed short term memory loss and started to get very confused. It’s only a couple of years since she used to do my accounts, so she’s done well for a long time. I reckon if you get to 96 you’re allowed to get a little quirky. Luckily, though there’s not much to be done about the memory, the confusion lessened when we figured out that she wasn’t taking her meds regularly. So getting her back on her meds eventually reduced the confusion. So now we have to do meds and meals on a daily basis, and also persuade her to go to bed at a sensible time. Since she lives next door it’s not such a hardship, but it’s one more reason not to write.

Then, after a year of spinning my wheels, writing-wise, I managed to get started… not on a new project but on an old one. A few years ago I wrote a novel for children called Your Horse Sees Dead People. It features magic and horses. Initially I aimed it at the older end of middle grade, but all along it wanted to be YA, so early this year I made a start on up-aging it. My heroine became 17 rather than 15 and the boy-next-door became 19. Everything suddenly fell into place. I did a structural edit and without changing the basic plot, it grew up and came of age within a couple of weeks of concerted effort.

But I couldn’t get the right ending. I actually wrote two endings, couldn’t decide which I liked best, so used both of them. Yes, you’re right. It didn’t work, so I chopped out one of the endings and now I have 20,000 words saved for a possible second book which I’m calling A Head Full of Magic Stuff. I polished Your Horse Sees Dead People and sent it off to my agent, so now I’m waiting for his comments. I hope he likes it.

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Terry Pratchett: the Shepherd’s Crown – Discworld #41 – Tiffany Aching #5 – For your reading pleasure

Ah, the very last Terry Pratchett and a farewell not only to the author but to one of his most endearing characters, Granny Weatherwax who sets her affairs in order, cleans the house, weaves her own coffin and meets Death as an old friend, leaving her cottage, her boots and her steading to young witch Tiffany Aching.

Tiffany is a powerful young witch, yes, but stepping into Esme Weatherwax’s shoes (while not giving up her own steading on the chalk) is a very big step and there are some senior witches, particularly Mrs Earwig, who would deny her the opportunity. Indeed, people are always underestimating Tiffany. She’s young, working class, she comes from the chalk, not from Lancre (and chalk is ‘soft’) and her kind of witching largely consists of going round the district dealing with births and deaths and cutting old men’s toenails because that’s what needs doing. And that’s what a witch does. It’s not flashy magic, in fact, it’s not always magic, but it’s what’s needful.

Tiffany has allies. Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax’s long time friend, knows that Tiffany wouldn’t have been named as Granny’s successor unless she was worthy, and the Nac Mac Feegles, the Wee Free Men of the first Tiffany book – a cross between miniature Scottish Nationalists, Glasgow boys on a Saturday night out, and Braveheart extras with double woad – are her staunch supporters and protectors. And then there’s Geoffrey, the boy who wants to be a witch, and also Tiffany’s long distance boyfriend who is learning to be a doctor in Ankh Morpork at the Lady Sybil Free Hospital.

All this comes together when there’s another major incursion from the Elves, those Lords and Ladies repulsed by the elder witches in the novel of the same name. Elves are nasty and dangerous. They live by their glamour and take delight in doing mischief from ruining beer to stealing children and tormenting and killing humans in various despicable and painful ways.

Needless to say Tiffany deals with the Elves in her own way and becomes her own witch in the end, not following exactly in Granny Weatherwax’s bootsteps, but making her own.

This is a delightful book, a fitting end to Terry Pratchett’s oeuvre. I have to say that right from the start there were moments when I could hardly read it dry-eyed. Tiffant has a lot to say about humanity, but she leads by example, working it out for herself as she goes.

When I finished the final page I was left with a hope that somewhere, in some reality, Terry Pratchett and Esme Weatherwax are sitting in the sun enjoying a substantial cup of their favourite tipple together.

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Tom Pollock: The City’s Son – Skyscraper Throne #1 – For your reading pleasure

A gritty, smelly, enthralling original which races around a hidden version of London introducing an assortment of bizarre nonhuman characters here in a supporting role from the pavement priests (living statues entombed in marble) and the street-lamp dancers (the orange and the white forever rivals), to the nursemaid/teacher composed entirely of rubbish, rats and maggots. And then there’s the villainous Reach – the Crane King, his ever growing menace lurking in his enclave at St Paul’s.

A book of monsters, street-magic and miracles, where wild train spirits menace unlucky pedestrians and a tarmac-grey boy, Filius Viae, feral crown-prince of this London, is all that stands between Reach and the memory of his long-absent mother, London’s goddess, Mater Viae.

Wildcat graffiti artist, Beth Bradley, betrayed by her best friend, Pen, after an incident at school and let down by her severely depressed widowed father, goes on the run, befriends a feral ghost train and meets the City’s Son, Filius with whom she has more in common that with her own family and friends. But Fil has a problem. His goddess mother hasn’t been seen since he was born and without her influence to keep Reach in his place the Crane King is expanding his territory and on the hunt for Filius.

Beth throws in her lot with Fil, but things get a lot more complicated when Pen and Beth’s dad get involved as well.

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Sorry I missed…

I missed last week’s blog post – mainly because I was engrossed in editing, so engrossed that Tuesday came and went without me really noticing what day it was. I’ve worked from home since 1980, so you’d think I’d have figured out some way of keeping track of days by now, wouldn’t you?

Birdsedge Post Office 1980

For the first four years I ran a post office, which, yes, was still working from home because we lived on the premises. I had to keep track of the days otherwise i could have ended up opening on a Sunday! When I gave up the PO (after having baby number 2) we leased out the premises and continued living here, and I went on to phase two of working from home – making and selling (first) rag dolls and clowns and (second) fisherman’s smocks.

A selection of my hand made clowns.

But by the mid to late 1980s Artisan, the a cappella trio I was singing in just for fun, was in demand at folk clubs and festivals, so we gave up the day jobs and turned pro. I certainly had to keep track of the diary then, or we’d have missed gigs! We had some very good advice from the late Al Sealy (of the duo Cosmotheka). He said: “No one should ever decide to go pro just because they want to. You wait until you have so many gigs in the diary that it becomes impossible to fulfil them while still working your day job, and at that point you decide whether to give up the music or the day job.” We reached that point in 1988, and still took another year to actually kick the day jobs into touch and become full-time singists. Artisan toured the UK and then Belgium and Germany and from 1994 onwards, Canada, the USA and (once) Australia. By the time we decided to retire from the road in 2005 we’d done 31 North American Tours in an eleven year period. That’s a LOT of flights, but also a LOT of fun. For the last seven years of Artisan touring I also ran a booking agency, fixing up gigs for other (mostly folk) performers – and that’s still going. I work from the same desk I write from.

Artisan at Colchester Arts 1990s. L – R Hilary Spencer, Jacey Bedford, Brian Bedford

I’ve always written, but for many years didn’t have the confidence (or the experience) to send my work out, but in 1989, via a contact I made through singing, my first short story – The Jewel of Locaria – was published in a DAW anthology Warrior Princesses, edited by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough  and Martin H Greenberg. It’s available (used) on Amazon and new for silly money, but I recently discovered it’s been released as an audiobook: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Warrior-Princesses/dp/B08KWRMCXL/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Warrior+princesses+Scarborough&qid=1623930022&sr=8-1

One thing led to another. I attended my first Milford and (eventually) got my first three book deal with DAW in 2013. From 2006 onwards I’d been working exclusively from home. After all the travelling of the previous 20 years it was bliss.

People ask if I miss singing. What I don’t miss is the travelling. As for the singing, I still feel as if I’m on a long hiatus between tours. We never say never again. We ‘retired’ in November 2005, but we were back on the road again (with a new album) for a reunion tour in 2010 (UK and Canada), and then again in 2015 (UK). In 2019 we were asked to do a local fundraiser for Motor Neurone Disease, and we loved it enough to agree to do another one in 2020 – which, of course, got cancelled because of the pandemic. If all goes well with C-19, we’ll be doing it this year on 6th November in Denby Dale (which has the added advantage of being only 5 minutes down the road from home). All the singing and none of the travelling! Yay!

Lockdown hasn’t really made much difference to us. Instead of going to the supermarket, we get regular grocery deliveries (thank you Tesco and Ocado). We visit with our kids (one in the USA,. on in the south of England) via Skype. Otherwise not much has changed. My office is the front room of our house and I often hit it before I’ve even hit the kitchen to make my first cup of coffee of the day. I love my office. It’s organic. In other words… messy. I have an archaeological filing system. The lower down the strata it is, the longer I’ve had it. It’s crammed full of books and papers, the everyday office trinclamentia and pens. Loads of fountain pens and inks. What can I say, I’m a penaholic!

None of which tells me what day it is, which is why I missed my regular blog post slot last Tuesday.

My mum, who lives in a connected granny-house, is 96 and has recently developed short term memory problems which leads to a bit of confusion. (Hey, you’re allowed to do that if you make it to 96!) She has one of those digital clocks that not only tells her the time, but tells her the day and whether it’s morning, afternoon, evening or night. Perhaps I should treat myself.

So, about the editing I was engrossed in… more next time…

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Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice – For Your Reading Pleasure

Breq was a space ship, the Justice of Toren, equipped with enough power to destroy planets and enough ancillaries to invade and conquer ‘uncivilised’ worlds in Radch ‘annexations’, however now she’s just Breq, human (more or less) and alone despite her memories. She’s the last surviving ancillary (corpse soldier) of the One Esk division, of Justice of Toren, and she has a self-imposed mission.

There are two stories here, the one happening in the now, and the backstory that led up to it. In one Breq is alone, in the other, she’s an omnicient AI running a ship full of ancillaries and human officers.

The action opens on an icy planet when Breq, in pursuit of an artefact she needs to complete her mission, comes across Seivarden, once a lieutenant on Justice of Toren a thousand years before. Old habits die hard and without really justifying it as an act of kindness Breq rescues Seivarden and ends up acting as a nursemaid. Seivarden is a recovering junkie, driven to dark places after jumping the intervening millennium in cryo-stasis and waking up in a universe that seems to make no sense.

Breq and Seivarden hardly seem to like each other, but their paths intertwine, at first almost accidentally and then with growing reliance.

To be honest the beginning seemed a bit slow because there are so many ideas in here and the set up requires an understanding of the way all Justice of Toren’s ancillaries are a part of the central ship’s intelligence, each one fully aware of the whole. But once I got over the initial strangeness I found that Leckie does a marvellous job of writing this without making it too confusing for the reader. One Esk comprises twenty linked individuals and each one is referred to as I, but it works.

Pronouns are confusing too, at first. Everyone is referred to as she, whether they have a curvy or straight physique, and you get very few clues as to what gender individuals are, which actually works well in this context. Breq has problems with pronouns in the non-Radch worlds because she can’t get the hang of gendered pronouns and sometimes makes the wrong call.

As an adjunct of an AI you’d expect Breq to have no emotions, and, indeed, she can and does carry out instructions from her superior officers even if that means going against her personal feelings. It’s one of these actions that she’s forced to carry out that drives the plot and we do discover that Breq has feelings, she just doesn’t express them in quite the same way as we might expect.

This is a book with big ideas, that doesn’t sacrifice characterisation for ideas and though Breq’s future seems inevitable, we find that there are choices which depend on personalities as well as logic.

Intelligent, thoughtful, complex and engaging, this is one of those books that you end up thinking about long after you’ve read the last page and closed the volume. It deserves all the awards it’s up for.

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Back, Just, and Other Superfluous Words

I’ve recently finished a structural edit on a YA manuscript, involving swapping some scenes around, making changes that needed to be worked through from beginning to end. In other words a proper structural edit, not a copy edit (which will come much later).

I usually write for adults, so writing YA is a new departure for me and something I see me doing alongside my science fiction and fantasy for adults, not instead of. I used to be a children’s librarian in the early days of YA and I’ve always been interested in reading it. But whether I’m writing for young adults or adults, considerations are the same. I work in Scrivener and when my manuscript is complete I compile into a doc file and settle down to read the whole thing through one more time.

And that’s when I usually notice… superfluous words

Sometimes words that I really don’t need worm themselves into my manuscripts. Words like: back, get, like, just, one, and know.

Shock! Horror!

It’s always worth doing a light pass over the manuscript to check whether any of these words can be excised or changed to make the manuscript better.

BACK

Look at these two sentences. The word ‘back’ is totally superfluous. Removing it doesn’t alter the meaning of the sentence at all.

He pulled me back into the shadows as someone moved past on the inside of the door.
He pulled me into the shadows as someone moved past on the inside of the door.

Or

We stepped back out onto the terrace.
We stepped out onto the terrace.

Or

We raced back to safety.
We raced to safety.

JUST

My other overused word is ‘just’. I’m horrified when I discover I’ve used it twice in one sentence or three or four times in one paragraph. Often I can remove it from a sentence without it leaving a hole or changing a meaning, but as an adverb it has a variety of subtle meanings and can sometimes do the heavy lifting in a sentence. It’s a vert hard-working word and its exact meaning is usually a matter of context.

just = exactly: as in “that’s just (EXACTLY) what I need”
or
just = now, very soon: as in “she’s just coming” (She’s coming VERY SOON.)
or
just = very recently; in the immediate past: as in “I’ve just (RECENTLY) seen Mrs Briggs at the bus stop.”
or
just = at the present time: as in “Alice is in the garden just now.”
or
just = only or simply: as in “We’ll just (SIMPLY) have to work harder.”
or
Just = used for emphasis or to make a statement stronger: as in “I just can’t get them to fit together.” (You could substitute with SIMPLY.)
Or
just = used to reduce/downplay a statement: as in “It was just a thought.”

But sometimes just doesn’t do much work in the sentence, so that’s when you can get rid of it.

I guess they’ll just have to come and get him in the morning.
I guess they’ll have to come and get him in the morning.
or
I was breathing heavily as if I’d just (RECENTLY) run a marathon.
I was breathing heavily as if I’d run a marathon.

WORDLE

One easy way to spot overused words is to paste the text of your whole book (or story) into Wordle – a very handy (free) programme which creates a word cloud with the most used words shown as the biggest. I downloaded wordle maker from wordle.net some years ago. Unfortunately that site doesn’t appear to exist any more. But there are links on MonkeyLearn to different word cloud makers. https://monkeylearn.com/blog/wordle/

So here’s my first word cloud from the recent edit, made by pasting in the whole 105,000 word text. (Yes, in the version I have there is the capacity to paste in a whole manuscript). In this word cloud you’ll see the word back is writ large.

And this is the word cloud after I’d done a search on every instance of back and removed all the superfluous ones. The word is still there, but much reduced.

So then I checked the manuscript for just, get, like, one, and head. and this is the wordle I ended up with. I’m happier with the distribution of well used words, but I will check it again after the copy edit.

What are your most overused words?

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Terry Pratchett: Dodger – For Your Reading Pleasure

I’m a big fan of Pratchett’s discworld and although this book is set in London in the early years of Victoria’s reign, the feeling is very Ankh-Morporkian, or maybe that should be that Ankh Morpork is very much based on London. Dodger lives in the Seven Dials and makes his living as a tosher, i.e. trawling through the city’s sewers, true Roman relics, for valuables that have been washed away down the city’s drains (at this stage more for rain water and detritus than personal waste). He’s a geezer, known by and knowing all the likely coves in his orbit and he’s not above finding the odd item that the owner didn’t know was lost, however, Solomon, his landlord, friend and mentor, far from being a Fagin character, strives to keep the lad on the straight and narrow.

And indeed, Dodger’s not a bad lad, though he’s no soft touch, except perhaps where the vulnerable are concerned. Emerging from his sewer one night he sees a scuffle, an attempted murder maybe, and rescues a young lady who has been severely beaten up, possibly a young lady of quality by the ring on her finger (which amazingly Dodger leaves there). Close by, a certain journalist named Charlie Dickens grows interested in the happening and thus begins an adventure to rival anything the Discworld has to offer. The stews of London, the Peelers, nobby gentry, Solomon’s wisdom, Onan the (very) smelly dog, a lethal assassin, Benjamin Disraeli and even Queen Victoria herself are all in the mix, plus Dodger’s attempts to find out who is trying to harm the young lady that he’s rapidly falling for, and a plan – which doesn’t go entirely… err… to plan. Dodger’s wry voice is appealing and his view of his surroundings and the people who inhabit them is amusing if not laugh out loud funny. A lively read. Highly recommended.

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Brave New Worlds

Brave New Worlds

I’ve been invited to be an anchor author in the upcoming anthology Brave New Worlds, to be published by Zombies Need Brains Press in 2022. I’m looking forward to writing a story for it, and my first thought is to write something set in my Psi-Tech universe, which has a strong theme of new planets and human settlements running through it. So this leads me to think about worldbuilding and I’m reminded that a few years ago, in an interview for his blog, Pete Sutton asked a number of questions. This one probably deserves a more detailed answer to the one I gave. Pete asked: “If you could travel inside the world of any fantasy novel, which world would you want to visit and why? Which one would you never want to visit?”

I need to say that my appreciation or otherwise of any of these worlds would entirely depend on my status/position and wealth. Any world (including ours) where you are scraping by in a peasant economy with no running water or sanitation, and nine hungry kids to feed is Not Fun.

I claim the Iron Throne

Westeros
I would both a) want, and b) never want to travel to Westeros. a) because I’d love to see it all, and b) because I would either end up dead almost as soon as my feet touched earth, or I would end up as a drudge in Fleabottom. I have no illusions about being as competent (or as brave) as my characters in fantasy. I can’t swing a sword, wield a knife (except in the kitchen) or run very fast. I do have some skills that might save my life. I can ride a horse, for instance, but that won’t do me any good unless I’ve got a horse.

Middle Earth
Before Covid I was planning on going to New Zealand for the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention, which meant I could take a few extra days to see Hobbiton and do the Weta Workshop tour. That would have been as close to Middle Earth as I could manage. Hopefully without being chased by orcs or any one of the other creatures in Tolkien’s world that could kill me. Hobbiton might be OK, though. Of course, I’d prefer to take the Hobbiton as seen in the movies, not the one from the books, otherwise it would be just my luck to land in the middle of the Scouring of the Shire. Let’s face it, if authors made life easy for their characters in their fantasy lands, readers would all get very bored. Writers create lands where the characters are in almost constant danger, so it stands to reason that dropping into any one of them would be dangerous. You’ve noticed a recurring theme here, huh? I’m happy to write about characters in extreme peril, but much less inclined to put myself in any danger.

Narnia
Narnia seems relatively benign once the White Witch has been defeated. I’m not a great lover of winter, especially when it’s ‘always winter but never Christmas’ and displeasing the witch would get you turned into a statue. So I’d probably (if there was a choice) like to end up in Narnia during the reign of High King Peter, with Susan, Edmund and Lucy on their thrones in Cair Paravel. Intelligent talking animals and a period of peace and plenty. What could possibly go wrong?

Barrayar
OK, strictly speaking this is science fiction not fantasy, but the Barrayar of Miles Vorkosigan (as opposed to the time of the civil war just before his birth) seems relatively safe and civilised. Though Miles manages to get into trouble, he does it mostly off world. I’d like to see the family home in the Count’s own district, and maybe go riding in the hills, or go shopping with Cordelia. I wouldn’t mind seeing Miles from a distance. He’s one of those characters you love to read about, but you just know that if you had to live with him on a daily basis, you’d simply want to kill him.

Taking everything into consideration, Narnia wins hands down. Now, where’s my wardrobe?

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Sherwood Smith – Rondo Allegro – For Your Reading Pleasure

I’ve always enjoyed reading Sherwood Smith’s fantasies, in particular the Inda sequence, and I just realised there are more books in her bibliography that I misse4d, so I can see I’m going to have to spend some time catching up. Here’s one I read back in 2014.

When sixteen year old Anna’s father is dying in Naples he arranges for her to be married off to a sea captain in Nelson’s navy. Henry Duncannon is a penniless officer estranged from his good family, who is more or less forced into the marriage of convenience. Within half a day Henry and Anna are separated as Henry heads back to sea, leaving the marriage unconsummated and Anna under the protection of Lady Hamilton. But war is flowing through Europe in the shape of Napoleon’s armies and soon Anna is left alone – with her faithful maid – and determines to make her way using her only skill, music. She takes up singing in an opera company. It’s six turbulent years in war-torn Europe before Anna and Henry are reunited and the love story truly begins.

This is a book in two halves – the opera years and the regency romance and both have their appeal. Ms Smith says that the novel came about because she originally intended to novelise the journals of Betsey Wynne, and, indeed, there’s lots of rich detail in here and an underpinning of authenticity. The story is a slow-burn romance despite the early marriage of convenience. Anna survives post-revolutionary France, a theatre fire, touring with the opera company which at times is nore hazardous than the Battle of Trafalgar. Possibly more terrifying still is Anna’s introduction to Henry’s English family and the woman who spurned him for his older brother.

Packed full of ideas, but not falling into the trap of unlikely melodrama this is an engaging read. Highly recommended.

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Cover Reveal: The Amber Crown

At last I’m allowed to show you the cover of my upcoming book, The Amber Crown. It’s not out until 11th January 2022, but that will be here before you know it. It’s available to pre-order from Amazon and other good book retailers. It says paperback, but it’s actually large format paperback (known as ‘trade’ paperback), and it will be out in normal format paperback later in 2022.

Of course I’d be delighted if you would pre-order it. It makes a huge difference to an author if there are a bunch of pre-orders on release day. I’ll be organising some signed bookplates for the release.

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

More buying/ordering options here.

In this new epic fantasy, three societal outcasts must work together to fulfill the orders of a dead king’s ghost or risk their nation falling to a tyrant

The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.

Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.

Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.

Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.

Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?

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Flashing Back

It’s generally easier to start writing a book at the beginning, keep on going until you reach the end, and then stop. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sequential storytelling mirrors the world we experience on a daily basis. We live our lives chronologically, but that might not be the best way to tell a story.

Where do you begin?

Sometimes I begin in the wrong place, write a couple of chapters and then stick them in a holding file before starting again. I have occasionally also committed prologue, usually when writing my way into a story, however by the time my novel reaches publication, I’ve come to my senses and ditched anything resembling a prologue. A prologue often tells the reader something that happened before the story proper starts. It’s out of time (and/or place) with the rest of the novel. It might reveal information that the main protagonist does not know, or finds out much later in the book. Sometimes a prologue is just one huge infodump, and you wonder if you should set a test for your reader when she gets to the end of it.

What you have to ask yourself is: Does a prologue improve my story?

Whether it’s a prologue or a couple of chapters that I need to ditch, I never throw anything away. I’ve been able to use bits of my deleted scenes/prologue as flashbacks to add explanations where necessary. It’s often a mark of how unnecessary a whole prologue or chapter is that the flashback I end up using is barely a paragraph or two.

If you want to create a gripping opening, it’s good to start as close to the action as you can. It’s known as ‘in medias res’. You drop your protagonists into the middle of the narrative without any preamble or explanation. You can dripfeed worldbuilding details into the narrative without infodumps or pausing the story for explanations.

Empire of Dust Cover
Jacey Bedford: Empire of Dust – A Psi-tech Novel, DAW, November 2014.

When you do need to explain backstory consider doing it with flashbacks. Used carefully, flashbacks can add information, motivation, emotion, and characterisation to a story. You can reveal something at the precise moment you, the author, want to. It can add greatly to the reader’s understanding. Using flashbacks you can show rather than tell what happened to motivate (or terrify) your protagonist.

But don’t overdo it. Sometimes you can pare down a ditched chapter or a whole prologue to a visceral pivotal paragraph.

I took an early version of my first published novel, Empire of Dust, to my first Milford workshop week where a bunch of published SF authors kindly took it apart and made constructive suggestions. One of those suggestions was, ‘I think you’ve started in the wrong place.’ I later surmised that this was author speak for: ‘There’s something wrong but I’m not sure exactly what it is,’ but since I didn’t know that at the time, I took the comment to heart, went away and wrote close to twenty thousand words of backstory.  Eventually I realised that I didn’t need the backstory. I needed to know it, but I didn’t need my audience to read it. I did however, get three short flashbacks of a few hundred words each, which I inserted into the book at a much later stage.

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Cory Doctorow – Little Brother – For your reading pleasure

This was up for a Best Novel in the Hugo awards and if I’d been eligible to vote that year I’d certainly have voted for it. Yes, it’s aimed at YA, but what the hell, it has Important things to say so don’t overlook it.

Marcus is 17, a clever kid, a gamer, a computer hacker and a bit of a rebel when it comes to skipping out of school to go off gaming with his three closest friends. What he is not, is a terrorist, but when terrorists blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge Marcus and his three friends are in the wrong place at the wrong time. His best friend Darryl is injured in the post-bomb panic and while trying to attract help the four of them are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security – effectively bagged, tagged and disappeared without rights – and subjected to interrogation of the nastiest kind using techniques such as deprivation, degradation, scare tactics and mental torture. Marcus – for asserting his constitutional rights – gets on the wrong side of one of the DHS goons and is subjected to worse than the others, but eventually, just when he thinks they are going to either kill him or ship him out to some anonymous holding facility without trial, he’s released along with his friends – or two of them at least. Darryl has disappeared. No one will admit he was ever in custody and the three survivors are warned that if they tell what happened to them they will disappear permanently.

It’s the start of a nightmare in which Marcus leads a campaign to fight back using hacker techniques to bring together the young disaffected and corrupting the ever increasing surveillance technology as San Francisco, besieged by the DHS, becomes a divided city – half of its population living in fear while the other half applaud the DHS measures to protect them from the invisible terrorists.

No spoilers in this review because that would be a shame. You need to read this book for yourself and make your own mind up just how far fetched this scenario might be given the right set of circumstances. Have our freedoms already been eroded? How close are we already with facial recognition software, tracking via mobile phones and the chips in our bank cards? is it invason or privacy or all for our own protection?

Cory Doctorow has written a tense, exciting novel with relentless pace and a totally believable protagonist who is alternately scared and brave – or often both at the same time. It’s one of those books that you think should become a classic. Maybe in a few years it will be required reading in schools. I hope so. It deserves to be. Then again, maybe it will become a subversive text, passed from hand to hand beneath the desk. Either way – it works for me.

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Researching Historical Fantasy

The first scene of Winterwood came to me almost fully formed. I knew there was a young woman paying a deathbed visit to her estranged mother and finding that there was still no forgiveness between them. I knew the young woman was dressed as a man and captained a pirate ship (later changed to privateer). She was also a witch. At that point it could easily have been set at any time period from late Medieval to Georgian. I had to settle on a time period. It would have been easy to set it in a Pirates of the Caribbean type world, more fantasy than history. Almost too easy. So I opted for 1800.

And then I had to start researching. Winterwood is a fantasy, so I could get away with inserting elements of magic, but it also had to have a certain amount of historical accuracy, or at least verisimilitude. 1800 was firmly in the Napoleonic era. Britain was under threat. King George III had already had his first bout of madness from which he recovered, but it left the country fragile. The loss of the Americas was still raw. To this historical background I introduced the Fae, shapechangers and a race of gentle bondservants called rowankind.

George III

I was starting from as close to scratch as it’s possible to get. I knew that what I didn’t want to do was involve high society, the ton and all the Regency romance stuff. (Strictly speaking the dates are earlier than the Regency, but it falls roughly into that period.) There are no balls or eligible dukes, but I do weave in some real life politicians (Pitt the Younger and Fox) and also King George III features in Rowankind as the trilogy is reaching its conclusion. Ross’ ship, The Heart of Oak, is a privateer vessel, preying on French merchant shipping, but when a peace arrives in 1802, Ross’ crew of barely reformed pirates has to go legitimate. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Also, without giving so much away that I’d have to shoot you, I have a real reason for King George’s madness that makes sense within the context of the book.

I’m not the sort of writer who does masses of reading and then decides to write a book. If I did that I’d never get started because it’s so easy to fall down the Great Rabbit Hole of Research and never find your way out again. I absorb some general background information and then I start to write the story. I research the detail of it when I need to. Initially, Wikipedia is your friend, but don’t get too cosy with the Wiki. It’s a good starting point, but you do need to cross check the information, and go into more depth either on the web and/or in book form. I like reading fiction on Kindle, but I have to have non-fiction in paper format because flipping back and forth via the index is essential for research. I don’t always read non-fiction through from beginning to end, I dip in and out.

Sail plan of a tops’l schooner

Since my knowledge of sailing is limited to being able to sing a few sea-shanties, I needed to do a whole lot of research on eighteenth and nineteenth century sailing ships. Firstly I had to determine what kind of vessel the Heart of Oak is (a topsail schooner, small but nimble) and then how to sail her through calm and storm, including effecting emergency repairs.

Paying attention to the details can help to give the book its authenticity. Sometimes I’m surprised by a fact and follow it up. A lovely little book on the Georgian fad of sea bathing (Louise Allen: The Georgian Seaside.) delivered the delightful information about King George’s bathing machine. It was painted red, white, and blue and had a ten foot flagpole on top, as if it wasn’t already obvious whose machine it was. And the ‘dipping ladies’ of Weymouth had GSTK (God Save the King) woven through their girdles. You just couldn’t make that stuff up. But once you know about it, you have to use it. Hence the sea-bathing set piece in Rowankind.

Vauxhall Gerdens

I used Vauxhall Gardens for a headlong chase sequence featuring hell-hounds, but this was out of season, which took even more research. There has been plenty written (and painted) featuring Vauxhall inhabited by crowds having fun, but not much to show what it was like in dank weather when the gates were closed.

I then sent my protagonists to ‘shoot’ London Bridge, i.e. risk the dangers of passing under the bridge in a small boat when the water rushing through between the arches, and the starlings that supported them, caused a waterfall effect that could be a six foot drop. This was the perdiod after all the buildings had been removed from the bridge, but it was still the same medieval structure that forced the fast flowing river between the broad starlings and under the narrowed arches.

Old London Bridge – Turner 1796

When I started researching Georgian Plymouth (for the opening chapters of Winterwood) I found a fabulous website with historical maps of Plymouth including the Sutton Pool area, the new Guildhall (very recently built in 1800) and the streets close to the waterfront. The site later disappeared, but luckily I’d downloaded some of the most useful maps. I also found a terrific set of maps of London in 1801 and 1806, which gave me accurate street names and enabled me to see which bits of the city were already there. Mostly the bits of London my characters inhabit are Wapping, Westminster and the river frontage that runs between them.

Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue 1811

I had to research everything from lock-picking, road transport, boat construction and sailing, to American slang of the era, and colourful British slang. If you look on Project Gutenberg for Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811, you will be amazed at some of the terminology. Did you know there was a term for a turd (a sirreverence) wrapped in paper and thrown over your neighbour’s wall’? It’s a Flying Pasty. I also needed answers to some fairly obscure questions such as who actually stitched together the red coats for the British army, and how were the contracts to produce them handed out? That took several attempts and a lot of Rabbit Holes.

I’m sure I’ve made some historical mistakes, but so far, readers have been kind enough not to point and laugh. One error I caught just before the last book went to press, was due to listening to a documentary on BBC radio. I had a scene in Rowankind, where Parliament is debating something important, and in that scene I had my protagonists viewing from the public gallery – which not only didn’t exist in 1802, but even if it had existed, women would not have been allowed. I had to make superfast alterations at the proofing stage where I should not have been doing more than correcting the odd typo. Luckily my publisher allowed me to make life difficult for them. Whew! I try my best, but I’m sure there are things that I miss. I was heartened by a best selling historical fiction author writing about crowds on Vauxhall Bridge (London) celebrating a British victory – some twenty years before the bridge was built. Thank goodness it’s not just me.

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Brent Weeks – The Way of Shadows – The Night Angel Trilogy #1 – For your reading pleasure

I discovered Tanya Huff in 2003, Lois McMaster Bujold was a couple of years after that and Patricia Briggs in 2008. Brent Weeks become my discovery of the year in 2009. His Night Angel trilogy is riveting. Having bought the first on spec in Waterstones I hurriedly ordered the second two from Amazon. Firstly – even without the story, the covers are gorgeous Calvin Chu illustrations

Okay – to the story. Violent and compelling the first book of the trilogy starts with three feral children, Azoth, Doll Girl and Jarl, who are part of a street gang in the Warrens of Cenaria City, doing whatever they can to survive, living under the terror regime of the rising leader, Rat, an abuser of the worst sort. The Littles are afraid of the Bigs, the Bigs are afraid of Rat, but everybody is afraid of Durzo Blint, the legendary wetboy and enforcer-for-hire of the the Sa’kagé – an underworld of street gangs, organised and disorganised crime, prostitution and death for hire.

‘A wetboy is like an assassin the way a tiger is like a kitten,’ we are told. A magically enhanced killer who doesn’t have ‘targets’ – he has ‘deaders’, because once a wetboy takes a contract his victim is as good as dead. Before Durzo will take him as his apprentice Azoth must prove himself by killing Rat. Azoth hesitates – with devastating consequences for his friends and so begins his education as a wetboy and his change of name to Kylar.

The first book tells of Kylar’s apprentice years – riddled with disappointment as his innate magical talent refuses to manifest – and his final test. He doesn’t understand the taciturn Durzo, doesn’t know what the man wants of him, more often than not gets beaten for his efforts. He has to learn how to move in high society and how to figure out Cenarian Court politics as invasion looms.

It’s a sprawling, complicated, hard-edged political fantasies where the stakes are high and emotions run deep. This book is a wild ride of action and emotion and just my type of read.

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What have I learned about writing?

Writing is a funny old business. Writers probably learn most by reading. You are what you read. Reading develops your ear for tight prose and snappy dialogue. Without even thinking about it, you learn about character and plot. The difficulty comes when you have to put all the innate skill you’ve probably already learned into practise, and put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I sold my first short story in 1998, but I didn’t sell my first novel until 2013.

When I started to write my first book way back in the 1990s (the one that’s still in the bottom drawer) I did it in omniscient point of view, head-hopping from one character to another, jotting down their thoughts and emotions randomly. Then I read my first ‘how-to’ book which was Plot by Ansen Dibell. It was a revelation. There was a chapter called ‘Would You Trust a Viewpoint with Shifty Eyes?’ which crystalised everything down to basics – single viewpoint versus multiple viewpoint, and how to transition between multiple viewpoints. (Hint: not mid paragraph.) What an excellent book for a beginner to stumble upon. It covers a lot of the basics, plots, openings, exposition, sub-plots, set pieces, transitions and framing devices, as well as the valuable advice, ‘When you come to the end, stop.’

A few months later I found ‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers,’ by Renni Brown and Dave King. It took me a step further along the road to considering the novel as a whole, including the invaluable advice: see how it sounds. Yes I always read my work out loud as the (hopefully) last thing before sending it off. My mouth picks up errors that my eyes do not. Clunky sentences and repeated words are exposed in time to be corrected.

I have many books on writing. These two taught me the basics.

The one that kicked me up a gear was ‘Writing the Breakout Novel‘ by Donald Maass. I’m not just saying this because Don is my agent. In fact, I read the book before he was my agent. His recent book ‘The Emotional Craft of Fiction‘ is also excellent, but take note, these two are not for beginners. They introduce writers to subtleties that really make a difference.

Writing Rowankind, the third book in my Rowankind trilogy, confirmed what I learned when writing Nimbus, the third book in my Psi-Tech trilogy. Sequels are difficult, and sequels to sequels are doubly so. For the final book in a trilogy, you have to pick up a story which already has the first and second books published (so no retrospective continuity shifting allowed). Without giving away too much of what happened in your previous books, you have to make it possible for someone who hasn’t read the others, to read this as a standalone. At the same time you have to tie up all your loose ends and deliver an ending that will satisfy both your new and your long-term readers.

I’m terrible for overexplaining things, so much so that my beta readers often scrawl, Yes! We KNOW already! In the margin. Beta readers are a wonderful resource. I’m part of a small critique group called Northwrite and we will often beta-read for each other. I also attend Milford SF Writers’ Conference (Covid permitting) which is a full week in the heart of Snowdonia with fifteen like minded (published) writers who come together to critique each others work. It’s not only brilliant to have your work critiqued by other professional writers, but you learn an enormous amount critiquing other people’s work as well, and then listening to what other people said about the piece you just critiqued. Sometimes it’s as if all fifteen people read something different into the same piece. Fascinating and instructive.

But before Northwrite, and before Milford, back in the mid 1990s I joined a usenet newsgroup called misc.writing. The folks there were generous with their knowledge. I didn’t even know what manuscript format was when I started. But I think their most valuable piece of writing advice was something like this: Apply seat of trousers to office chair and fingers to keyboard and write. Revise as necessary. Finish what you write. Polish it. Send it out. While you’re waiting for it to come whistling back, write something else. Rinse and repeat.

I’ve learned an enormous amount, but there’s always more to learn. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson.

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Kari Sperring: Living With Ghosts – For your reading pleasure

This is a gorgeous multi-layered work with a cast of characters which includes the city of Merafi – as much a part of this as are Gracielis, failed Tarnaroqui assassin-priest now courtesan and spy; Thiercelin, husband of one of the Queen’s closest advisors and feeling like a spare part most of the time; Joyain, loyal soldier, out of his depth, just trying to keep it all together; Valdarrien, slain in a duel, but not yet gone.

And then there’s Merafi, a city of many contrasts, prosperous and rich with shipping, merchants, artisans and courtesans. The Queen and the high houses on the hill overlook the Low City with her toes in the river, dank, damp, dark and decaying, yet thriving despite it all – until the upstart Prince Kenan of the Lunedith, and Quenfrida, the Tranaroqui spy mistress conspire to remove the bonds of ancient magic allowing the river to rise, setting free the opaque ghosts and demons, invisible to the Merafiens, but plain as day to Gracielis. The river’s floodwaters bring pestilence and violence, and while loyal Joyain tries to do his duty, only Gracielis can end it – if he wants to. But Gracielis is in thrall to Quenfrida, while at the same time drawn to help Thiercelin, Thiercelin is driven by the apparent disregard of his wife, and  haunted by the memory of his dead friend, Valdarrien. Valdarrien, by now more than a revenant spirit, grows even stronger and seeks a way back to find his lost love, Iareth. Iareth is in the retinue of the prince, but also playing a dangerous double game by spying on him for her father, the Lunedith spymaster.

Gracielis knows the final solution requires a sacrifice, but who? Thiercelin is horribly afraid that he might know.

Complicated? Yes, or say rather complex, because all this unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, drawing out the tension to almost unbearable pitch before we finally get resolution. It’s not a happy ever after ending, but it does resolve and resolves well, with some characters left standing, but not all. This is Kari Sperring’s debut novel, published by DAW in 2009. She’s a bona fide medieval historian with many academic books to her credit, and a self-confessed lover of the France of the Three Musketeers.  Her writing is as elegant, as complex and as multi-layered as her characters and plot. Highly recommended.

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Elizabeth Chadwick: Shadows and Strongholds – For your reading pleasure

The story of Fulke (known as Brunin) FitzWarin and Hawise de Dinan from the time Brunin is taken into the de Dinan household (Ludlow Castle) as a ten year old squire, at the request of his father who wants the gentle Brunin ‘made into a man’. Brunin and Hawise grow up together, firm friends, but their eventual marriage is not in their own hands in a world where marriages are arranged for political, economic and security reasons.

This is set against a background of upheaval. It’s England in 1148 and Prince Henry of Anjou is making a determined bid for the throne – and will soon become Henry II. FitzWarin and de Dinan are supporters of the victorious Henry, but that’s a no guarantee that when the dust settles they won’t have lost what they consider to be theirs, for Henry is a capricious king, given to redistributing his favours (and his strongholds) according to the need of the moment.

Gilbert de Lacy contests the right to Ludlow and as the de Dinan family and Joscelin de Dinan’s young but growing squire are drawn into battles determined by the course of history. Brunin does, indeed, grow to manhood, every inch a Norman knight, learning eventually to overcome the enmity of his brothers, the fear of his harridan grandmother (who never lets anyone in the family forget that they carry William the Conqueror’s bloodline) and the disappointment of his father, earning respect and eventually coming into his inheritance.

But Brunin’s betrothal to Hawise (portrayed entirely realistically not as a great romance, but as a great friendship blossoming into love at the behest of both their families) is what brings Ludlow down – because in all his time in the de Dinan household he – and everyone else – had discounted the feelings of Marion – another de Brunin fosterling who is much more unstable than anyone suspects. It’s Marion’s treachery that loses them Ludlow in fact, to a private battle with de Lacey, and Henry that seals it in law.

This is also a story of the love between Joscelin de Dinan and his wife Sybilla. Joscelin, an ex mercenary and good judge of men holds Shrewsbury as his wife’s inheritance. Joscelin is a rarity. A truly good and strong man whose one fear is of letting his wife down. He was given Ludlow (and Sybilla) together and fears that losing one will lose him the other. A well-written and engaging book that I read because someone left it here. I’m glad I did. I don’t read many historicals, but I’m inclined to seek out more Elizabeth Chadwick and there is a continuation of Fulke/Brunin’s story in Lords of the White Castle (written four years before this book) which is now on my wants list.

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Sea Shanties, and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Songkiller Saga

Nathan Evans

As a long-time folkie I watched with great amusement as the Good Morning America TV show interviewed Nathan Evans – the twenty-six year old Scottish postman whose Tiktok renditions of sea shanties seem to have sparked off their discovery by a whole new, and hitherto unenlightened, audience.  74 million views and counting.

Of course sea shanties are not a new phenomenon to many of us.

The breakfast-show hosts played a short clip of Nathan’s The Wellerman while telling the audience that it’s called a ‘sea shanty,’ emphasising the two words as though they’d never been spoken in English before, and explaining that it was a ‘serous throwback all the way from the nineteenth century’. Then the other host explained that ‘Sea shanties date back to the 1800s; folk songs that were sung by sailors working on whaling ships.’

Close but no cigar.

The Evening Standard said, ‘Elon Musk is among celebrities embracing the medieval music trend started by a postman.’

Medieval? I think not. (There certainly may have been work chants in Medieval times, but none survive today.)

Sea shanties are rhythmical work songs, commonly sung to set a pace for specific types of labour on board a sailing vessel – not just whaling ships, of course. You get capstan shanties, windlass shanties, and halyard shanties, for instance – differently paced songs for different types of task, hauling or heaving. The shantyman would set the pace and sing the call while the crew doing the work would sing/shout the response. The deck of a ship was no place for a smooth trained voice. The requirements for a shantyman was that he could be heard over a force eight gale, he could keep a steady rhythm suitable for the job, and that he could improvise the call lines (the response always being the same) to make the shanty as long or as short as it needed to be to get the job done. Bonus points to the shantyman for lewdness. Hey, sailoring was a hard life, they had to take their fun where they could find it.

Stan Hugill

It’s likely that shanties (or chanteys) developed from work chants much earlier than the 1800s, of course. Sometimes they were accompanied by a fiddle, but more often they were sung without any instrumental accompaniment. You can find a great many shanties in what it probably one of the definitive works of the genre: Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961). Stan – known as the last shantyman – was not only a singer with a great repertoire, but also a collector of shanties.

You also get forebitters, sea songs usually sung by sailors while at rest, for entertainment, rather than to mark rhythm for a shipboard task. But that’s a subject for another day.

If you are thinking that this current interest in shanties is the first revival, think again. The folk song revival of the 1950s and 60s which continues to the present, of course, adopted shanties and sea songs enthusiastically. Nathan Evans has now been signed up to Polydor Records, and the harmony version of The Wellerman by Bristol group The Longest Johns has gone viral. However for the last 60 years there has been a long line of shanty and sea song singers from The Shanty Crew, Kimber’s Men, ‘unsung’ heroes such as Johnny Collins (solo and with Jim Mageean) and the Keelers to Fisherman’s Friends, recently brought to public consciousness by the movie of the same name.

If you want to listen to some sea-shanties from those well-known-in-folk-circles performers who are definitely not ‘famous’ try this: https://youtu.be/-CuyLbC2TZo

These are two of my favourite sea-songs practitioners: William Pint and Felicia Dale. Listen here: https://youtu.be/QDYg0-kkAkU – or try this one https://youtu.be/RLRcu8ogYTs Coincidentally William and Felicia are the people who introduced me to Annie Scarborough – see below.

So why have sea shanties gone viral with a new audience?

Times are very strange. I wish I had a shiny penny for every time the news broadcasts use the word ‘unprecedented,’ whether it’s referring to Coronavirus, the US presidency of the orange one (now thankfully terminated), or the storming of the Capitol building by armed insurrectionists on 6th January 2021. These are strange times, indeed, not only strange but terrifying. (At the time of writing the UK is approaching 100,000 C-19 deaths.) I think sea shanties provide a simplicity that we all yearn for as modern life becomes ever more complex. Music has always raised the spirits. As has been proved on Tiktok, shanties are simple enough for anyone to join in with, and singing together, even via Tiktok, Youtube or Zoom, if you can’t currently meet in person, is good for the soul.

Which brings me to the literary connection… in the author’s own words. Please welcome Elizabeth Ann Scarborough to the blog.

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Songkiller Saga
The Phantom Banjo / Picking the Ballad’s Bones / Strum Again

The Songkiller Saga is an extended attempted murder ballad comprised of three books, Phantom Banjo, in which the good guys discover and begin to thwart a plot by the Evil Forces aka Devils, to obliterate folk music, Picking the Ballads’ Bones in which the same good guys travel to the places where various important songs began,  taking  them to their roots, and Strum Again? in which the music, newly remembered and performed again, does battle with the Devils again to keep itself as relevant and useful as it always has been.

If I were writing it today I would include the phenomena of how a plague forced modern people indoors and onto the internet where they rediscovered Sea Shanties. The nautical work songs were all but lost except for specialty festivals in areas with a seagoing history, but were no longer necessary as they were in the days when they contained the beat, the pace, and within their lyrics the instructions for work aboard the sailing ships that once plowed the seas hauling cargo and killing whales.  The latter activity, while currently considered politically incorrect, nonetheless had a lot of the best songs. Where once the world’s economy was interwoven with the sea songs, up until recently people asked “what’s a shanty?” Nowadays the answer seems to be “an internet sensation performed in chorus with whoever wants to join in, connecting house-bound landlubbers  and relieving some of their tension, anxiety, and isolation.”

I wrote the series when restrictions and regulations stopped the interaction of (particularly) Canadian and US performers and their products across the border, also interfering with the movement of the songs and performers of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Not only was the flow of traditional songs dammed, but new songs no longer reached the ears of all possible audiences. Something had to be done!

Who better to tackle the task than the musicians and lovers of the music I called friends? I didn’t use real names or identities for the most part because basically, in the context of the book, they didn’t exist. None of my friends have done the things I describe in the books (except for the singing, of course) and if any of the Devils resemble real people or organizations they might object to the use of their true identities. A few characters are composites of characteristics of people I know. People seem to have fun guessing who is who. Those I know and have used as inspiration are aware of it and approve of it. For using any portion of any of their songs I obtained written permission. Although the books fared commercially about as well as most of the songs, I have received fan mail and good comments about them  from people I’ve admired for a long time. The “Take it to its Roots” song I wrote as the theme song for the books was recently recorded by Tania Opland, who may or may not have inspired one of the characters. In recent years I’ve written two more novels in my original SONGS FROM THE SEASHELL ARCHIVES series, carrying the timeline forward to include steam punk memes. The first book is THE DRAGON, THE WITCH, AND THE RAILROAD and the most recent is REDUNDANT DRAGONS. I have also written several books and stories about a cat detective named Spam who lives in the same town I do and solves “purranormal” mysteries with the help of other critters.  Currently I am working on a new one in the Godmother series about animals.

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is the author of 30 solo fantasy and science fiction novels, including the 1989 Nebula award winning Healer’s War.  Additionally she’s written 16 novels with Anne McCaffrey, most recently the Tales of the Barque Cat series, Catalyst and Catacombs (from Del Rey). Her latest solo novel is Redundant Dragons, a steampunk spinoff of her Songs from the Seashell Archives series. She has had short stories published in numerous anthologies and 3 collections. She loves folk music, cats, Mexican and Native American folk art and singing in groups big enough to drown her out.

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Building a Universe – Law and Order in The Psi-Tech Novels

More about the universe in which the Psi-Tech books are set.

The Monitors – Galactic Policing
Formed in 2391, the Monitors are an interstellar policing force largely concerned with providing law in the space-lanes and for those newly established colonies that have not yet achieved critical mass in terms of their own law-keeping. They are not affiliated with the megacorps, though they often have to work together. They have massive ships that carry a self-contained circuit court. The circuit-court ships tour the subscribed colonies and independent settlements, generally dealing with the more serious crimes.

Well-established colonies have their own police forces but the Monitors hold precedence over local law if necessary. In practice they prefer to work with local forces rather than ride roughshod over them, but there are times when they have to muscle in. Funded by levies from all the subscribed worlds, Monitor effectiveness is limited by their ability to respond quickly to requests for intervention. They are one of the few organisations that keeps a modest fleet of jumpships for fast response.

Some of the independent settlements (i.e. not owned by one of the megacorps) also pay a levy to the Monitors. Theoretically speaking the Monitors are obliged to pursue the process of the law whether or not individual planets are signed up, but it’s a delicate balance on the independent worlds.

Before working with the Trust Ben Benjamin started his career in the Monitors, but encountered corruption and realised it was something he couldn’t fight alone, and preferred to be somewhere where he could truly make a difference. When offered a job settling new colonists on virgin planets, he took it.

Punishment
Most planets do not have capital punishment. Those that do are generally planets not signed up to the Monitor ‘circuit courts’ and the prison planet system, and are without resources to build their own prisons. The Monitors have access to designated prison planets, usually marginally survivable worlds. There’s no rule on any prison planet except the rules the prisoners make for themselves, i.e. survival of the fittest. Prisoners are stripped of their handpads, dropped and left with only the clothes they stand up in. If they have a set-term sentence they must present themselves at the drop point on the day their sentence is up (presuming they can keep track of time without their handpads). They have only one opportunity to get off planet. If they miss their pickup they are stuck. Unsurprisingly only a small proportion of prisoners ever show up for pickup. Some prison planets are lawless hell-holes, others are not much different from independent colonies. Much depends on the prisoners themselves. Once a prison planet has a population of fifty thousand it’s closed to further inmates. If, fifty years later, if it has become ‘civilised’ it can apply to become an affiliated settlement. The acceptance process takes long enough that by the time colony status is granted the original prisoners will all have died of old age, natural and unnatural causes, and the population will consist only of their children and grandchildren.

Crossways
Crossways is an enormous rogue space station peopled by criminals, gangs, arms dealers, weapons labs, and used as a home base by pirate and smuggling fleets. It’s governed by a coalition of crimelords. Street crime (though not entirely eliminated) is severely frowned upon since in order for outsiders to come to Crossways to do business, the streets have to be relatively safe. Crossways was once a megacorps station, but some years ago fought a war for independence, which they won. The damage to the station was extensive and over the years it has been repaired piecemeal, giving the whole place an irregular outline as bits have been built on and sealed off. Don’t get the wrong idea, Crossways is not anarchic. The governing crimelords ensure that the non-criminal inhabitants can still live and work, bring up their children and run legitimate businesses. Someone has to feed and clothe the populace, see to their medical needs, and maintain the station’s infrastructure. The station has its own security force and it’s armed to the teeth against outsiders. The Monitors leave it alone unless invited in. The crimelords deal with transgressors harshly. Anyone who breaks the rules finds themselves taking a short walk out of the nearest airlock.

Illustrations by Stephan Martiniere
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Patricia Briggs: Steal the Dragon – For your reading pleasure

There are no dragons in this book – well there is one, but not a significant one and it only appears on the page once, in a dream.  So having got that out of the way, this is early Briggs (1995). It’s the second in her Sianim books, the first being her debut book, Masques which is so difficult to find that it’s listed at several silly prices from around $135 (so I haven’t read it yet). However not having read the first is no problem because this is a complete standalone (apparently the two books share some side characters) in which former dancer/slave, Rialla, is asked to return to the land of her slavery on an important mission for the Spymaster of the mercenary nation of Sianim.

She’s disguised as a slave to her spy-mission-partner Laeth and the big issue at first is whether she can go back to the guise of slavery and, indeed, whether, after seven years of freedom. she’s ever really left slavery behind. This is heightened by the appearance of her former slave-master and his demand (unmet) that his property be returned to him. When Laeth is accused of murder and incarcerated, help appears from a totally unexpected quarter, the somewhat hunky, but rather strange healer, Tris, who is more than he appears. He’s not-quite-human for starters. With Laeth rescued and heading back to the Spymaster with the first part of the required intelligence, it’s left up to Rialla and Tris to find the real killer and that, means Rialla is going to have to let herself fall into her former owner’s clutches again.

Patricia Briggs has learned a lot about writing since she wrote ‘Steal the Dragon’, but the early promise was definitely there and this is well worth reading. Rialla’s internal conflict about her independence and her feelings about slavery are well done and not too heavy-handed. Tris is a decent love interest – for once a hero in a fantasy novel who does not carry weapons of any kind. Rialla is the sword-wielder of the pair, though mostly the problems are solved by brain-power rather than muscle power and by some hearty running away. Nice! But the ending – the actual consummation scene between the two protagonists – is a missed opportunity to explore the last of Rialla’s relationship issues. Briggs has herself admitted that (in an online interview) but also said that – at the time – Rialla’s issues had taken her right to the edge of her (then) writing ability. Happily her abilities to bring out characters and their issues and not take the easy option have developed at a great rate (see the Mercy Thompson novels for proof of that), however I’ve caught up (retrospectively) with some other early Patricia Briggs novels and it’s fascinating to see the progressive development of a huge talent.

Oh, and Steal the Dragon is a sneaky chess-like game of skill, strategy and guile which Tris is delighted to find Rialla can not only play, but can beat him at, too.

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Building a Universe – Folding Space – The Psi-Tech Novels.

Early Space Exploration
Humans established several stations on the moon, and a joint scientific facility on Mars by 2050. At the same time commerical expeditions to mine the Kuiper Belt proved successful, and, following a twenty year scientific study, shipyards were built on Europa, Jupiter’s ice-shrouded moon.

Humanity’s first baby steps outside of our solar system were to stars such as Proxima Centauri, where a ten year journey was within the capability of a human crew, thanks to the new cryogenic process developed in Russia.

The idea of folding space had been around for some time but it wasn’t until Ernest Evien Wixler postulated the jump gate theory in the late twenty first century that a practical application was tried. A jump-gate route between Earth and Chenon (previously settled the long way) was opened, and from there new routes were forged, and a network established that could transport humans across the galaxy.

The biggest problem was that platinum was required as a catalyst and with each jump a small but significant amount of platinum was lost in the Folds of space. Platinum is found across the solar system, but only in minute amounts. With the race to open up the galaxy for pleasure and profit, the race to find platinum was on.

The Folds
Even with platinum to keep the jump gates open, navigating the Folds is still a dangerous business. Ships enter but don’t always leave again. In the early days many ships were lost, but the potential rewards were too great for humankind to return to interstellar travel at slower-than-light speeds. There’s no quick profit to be had from sending out a generation ship or an expedition that won’t return until after you’re dead. The real breakthrough in jump-gate travel came when neuroscientists developed an implant to enhance psionic tendencies that had previously been unacknowledged or consigned to the realms of fringe science. Psi-Navigators were suddenly in high demand.

People transiting foldspace, whether a pilot or passenger, often see things that aren’t real – or aren’t supposed to be real according to the training manuals. Hallucinations? Almost certainly – at least some of the time. However some Psi-tech Navigators see the same hallucination time and time again. Are Void Dragons only in the mind or is there something really out there? What creatures inhabit fold space, and are they dangerous or benign?

You’ll need to read the trilogy to find out.

Next time: Law and order in the vast reaches of space.

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Lois McMaster Bujold: Legacy – Sharing Knife # 2 – For your reading pleasure

The continuing adventures of Lakewalker, Dag Redwing Hickory and his ‘farmer’ wife Fawn Bluefeld, following on directly from the events in ‘Beguilement’ which ended with Dag and Fawn’s wedding at the Bluefeld farm, having more or less overcome her family’s objections. Now they’re off to face Dag’s family which is going to be a much more difficult sell because the Lakewalkers think they’re a cut above, magically, that is, and that the rest of the world – farmers whether they farm or not – are a bunch of ignorant ingrates.

Lakewalkers can sense ‘grounds,’ that’s life-energy to you and me, and they are dedicated to killing ‘malices’ – power-hungry entities that pop up out of the ground, and blight everything around – including people. Only Lakewalker magic can kill a malice, they’re immortal and immune to everything but specially prepared bone knives imbued with mortality. Nothing is more important to Lakewalkers than this duty and their whole way of life is dedicated to supporting their patrollers. It’s a tight knit little community that Fawn walks into – hoping she can impress Dag’s harridan mother. She doesn’t and neither does Dag who, it seems, is the son who can’t do anything right. Dag’s brother Dar is as much of a problem as his mother. Luckily there are one or two patrollers that Fawn met in ‘Beguilement’ who, while not openly accepting of their marriage, are not hostile to Fawn and so the couple settle down to married life with the threat of a council meeting hanging over their head to proclaim on the validity of the marriage.

Dag shows his mettle, grows in talents and in saving others manages to get himself into malice trouble again and only with Fawn’s help does he get out of it, but despite proving herself over and over again, she’d never going to be able to make Yorkshire Puddings like Mother makes. Dag solves the problem in his own way which lead them nicely forward to the much anticipated third book in the series, ‘Passage.’

Everything I said about the first book in The Sharing Knife sequence stands here. Well-written, well-rounded characters and if the plot is less than action-packed, the dramatic tension remains high. We learn more about Dag, his first marriage, and some of the reasons why he never followed through and became a captain, despite that being his obvious destiny in his younger days and one of his obvious talents. The fact that he cares so much about others is one of the appealing things about him. Dag doesn’t – in any way – consider himself above farmers. Dag and Fawn are an engaging couple deliberately mismatched for extra interest and cultural misunderstandings.

If you’re looking for the kind of pace Miles Vorkosigan keeps up, you may need to look elsewhere, but this series is on a par with Bujold’s Chalion novels for character and interest. Her writing never disappoints, whatever the style.

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Building a Universe – The Psi-Techs

My Psi-Tech Universe has implant-enhanced humans who have telepathy to a greater or lesser extent, combined with other psi talents. My main characters, Cara and Ben are psi-techs. Cara is a top class telepath with a side order of empathy, and Ben is a weak telepath but a talented navigator able to connect with ship’s systems and fly through the Folds of space. (More about the Folds next time.)

Psi-Techs History
In the latter half of the twenty-first century researchers in China worked with individuals whose talent for telepathy could be enhanced to give them instant communication between ship and home. They learned how to nurture a talent for navigation bordering on the extraordinary, developing psi-Navigators with the ability to fly the Folds safely. An unexpected by-product of the programme delivered Empaths, Healers, Finders, Psi-mechanics who can interface and control bots, and exozoologists, known in the trade as Dee’Ells (for Dolittles) who can influence and understand non-human creatures.

Cara

Developing psi implants became a research priority. The corporations sank an enormous amount of resources into R&D. Rowan-Markesa’s scientists led the field. During an attempted hostile takeover by Arquavisa the entire R&D department of Rowan-Markesa resigned and published their findings, making the technology available to all. This prevented any one company getting a complete stranglehold. The Monitors (law enforcers), planetary governments and the Five Power Alliance in Earth also implant and employ psi-techs.

Even those with no psi aptitude can have an implant fitted, but it’s expensive and allows only a basic facility to receive telepathic messages, not to instigate them without the mediation of a Telepath. It’s possible for someone with a receiving implant to wear a damper to retain privacy, but because of the possibility of intellectual and industrial theft via an implant, the top executives tend not to have them and rely on personal telepaths to be at their beck and call for urgent communications.

Ben

The Cost Factor
It’s expensive to find, implant, and train a psi-tech so their employers tie them into long term, contracts. They are well paid and well looked after, but always in hock to their megacorp. Any psi-tech who steps out of line is likely to be scheduled for Neural Readjustment. If that doesn’t work, their implant can be removed or they can be scheduled for neural reconditioning, but with predictably messy results. So the psi-techs are bound to the megacorps if they want to retain their sanity. Psi-techs can change companies as long as their new company buys out their contract. They can also buy out their own contracts, but this is so expensive that it’s hardly ever achieved in practice as there’s a cumulative amount for ongoing maintenance of the implant – insurance of sorts that if anything goes wrong the company will look after it (and them). When they retire (they can always be recalled to active duty if the need arises) the company provides a modest pension, somewhere to live and continuing implant maintenance.

Sanctuary
Psi-techs who reebel against their megacorps are dealt with severely, but there are rumours of a place called Sanctuary where runaway psi-techs are helped onwards to new and independent lives. Does it exist? The megacorporations would like to think it doesn’t. In fact, they’ve gone to considerable lengths to make sure it doesn’t, but you can’t keep a good idea down…

Next time… Space exploration in the Psi-Tech Universe.

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Lois McMaster Bujold: Beguilement – The Sharing Knife #1 – For your reading pleasure

All the reviews said: ‘Good, but not as good as Curse of Chalion,’ so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. On the whole I would agree, but to my mind it will be a very exceptional book that is as good as Curse of Chalion, so what to we have here? While not Bujold’s absolute best, it’s still very good indeed. A fantasy, but also more of a romance in that apart from a few monsters (inhuman and human) the plot is fairly well kept inside within a boy-meets-girl scenario, even though neither the ‘boy’ nor the ‘girl’ are exactly typical.

Lakewalker patroller Dag rescues, and falls for, young Fawn Bluefeld, a young woman from a farming family who is much less than half his age. He has to slay a monster first, but that’s his job. Scarier than the monster is Fawn’s family because Lakewalkers and farmers don’t mix and there’s much cultural misunderstanding. I have a soft spot for Bujold’s damaged heroes and there is a comparison between Dag and Cas (the hero in Chalion) in that Dag has that same lack of awareness of his own heroic qualities while at the same time having certain knowledge of his own abilities which inspires the reader’s utter confidence in the fact that if he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it or go down trying. Cas is still my favourite hero, but Dag is up there in the top ten list and that’s saying an awful lot.

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Building a Universe – Power Structures and Personal Stories.

When I started to write Empire of Dust I didn’t really know much about my setting. I didn’t build my universe first and then people is and dream up stories. The people came first, and along with them a predicament.

A woman is on the run from a corrupt and dangerous ex-lover.
A man who failed once is given a second chance.
A cult leader wants to lead his followers to a place where they can make a fresh start.
An official of a huge corporation sees a way of benefiting the company and advancing himself, and isn’t too bothered who he has to step on to achieve his aims.

Those themes could fit into almost any setting: Al Capone era America; the South Sea Bubble; present day Delhi; the English Civil War.

I chose to set my story in outer space, five hundred years in the future. Then I had to start building not just one world, but several. Central to everything are the psi-techs, implant enhanced telepaths with a diverse array of other ‘mind’ skills from navigation to manipulating machinery telekinetically.

Cara (a Telepath) and Ben (a Navigator) live in a future in which mankind has learned to travel through the Folds via jump gates. Commerce is king. Megacorporations such as Alphacorp and the Trust are more powerful than any one planetary government, even that of Earth, which is now ruled by the Five Power Alliance. The megacorps race each other to gobble up resources across the galaxy, seeding and controlling new settlements.

Platinum is the vital catalyst required for every jump into and out of foldspace. With each jump a small but significant amount of platinum is lost. Scientists and engineers are working hard to fix the problem, but until then platinum is vital to the operation of interstellar trade. And it’s rare. Super-rare. (All the platinum ever mined throughout the history of our world amounts to less than 25 cubic feet!)

To keep the jump gates open and trade running, the megacorps are constantly searching for more and more platinum. It’s a cut-throat business, sometimes literally. A platinum find can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams – as long as you can stay alive long enough to collect on it.

So that’s the basic set up. Over the next few blogs I’ll be going into the details of how everything fits together in my universe, starting today with the power structure.

The Five Power Alliance
When an incoming meteor broke up and simultaneously destroyed the southern USA and large parts of China/Australasia, the breakdown of those countries (and many others that had not been directly struck due to the catastrophic rise in sea levels and dust in the atmosphere) in the resulting Meteorite Winter that lasted for decades a new power structure arose. The Five Power Alliance became a global government consisting of Europe, Africa, Soumerica (led by Brazil), Western Asia and Sino-Russia. Though the megacorps have an economy that outstrips that of Earth, mankind’s mother planet is still the largest centre of human population in the galaxy.

The Megacorporations
How did the megacorporations become so powerful in the first place? You only need to look at what’s happening in the world now to see the seeds that might grow into something closely akin to the megacorps in my books. The changing rights of corporations in the USA is fascinating. Extrapolate from there. The corporations which jumped on the space bandwagon early (before the impact) made enormous profits, firstly from research and then when colonies were established, from exploration and trade. In 2210 the Tanaki Dominion Trust (later to be known simply as The Trust) financed the first out-of-system gate between Earth and Chenon (settled by a slower-than-light mission). They used Chenon as a staging post for gate expansion and colony exploration. There has always been intense rivalry between megacorporations, especially in terms of the number of colonies. Takeovers still abound and jockeying for position is rife. The Trust, Arquavisa, Alphacorp, Ramsay-Shorre, Eastin-Heigle etc. play dirty tricks and use whatever advantages they can to establish and keep their position. All megacorporations and aspiring corporations rely on psi-techs, not only in space, but on Earth and in the colonies as well. Each megacorp has its own psi-tech training facility.

The Trust
The Trust’s headquarters are just north of Durban in South Africa, one of the most prosperous nations on Earth with its virtual monopoly on Earth’s remaining platinum resources. The Trust’s board of directors is led by Chair and CEO John Hunt, but Victoria (Tori) Le Bon is a rising star. The sub-sections of the Trust are located off-planet, all in different, but well-established colonies. Colony Operations is located on Chenon.

Alphacorp
Just a whisker behind the Trust in terms of wealth and influence (and always trying to catch up) Alphacorp runs all its operations from Earth (though they have offices on many colonies). Headquarters is based in Sandnomore in the Saharan Rainforest. CEO and chair of the Board is Akiko Yamada. Alphacorp’s Special Ops unit (run by Ari van Balaiden) is situated in York, England.

Next time: The Psi-Techs.

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