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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Charles Stross: The Bloodline Feud – for your reading pleasure

Charles Stross: The Family Trade – Merchant Princes #1

Two books, one story. I bought them as individual books, but they are now available in the omnibus The Bloodline Feud.

Damn you, Charlie Stross! I was just getting into this when it ended inconclusively and thereby forcing me to immediately order the second one in the series. Yes, it’s that good!

When Miriam, an investigative journalist, uncovers something dirty and takes the scoop of the century to her boss, she’s immediately sacked along with the analyst whose done some of the research with her. Later, at a loose end, she visits her adoptive mother only to be given a family heirloom, a locket with a strange pattern on the inside. Later, at home, she discovers that pattern enables her to walk between worlds. What meets her in that alternate America is stranger than she ever thought possible. It turns out she’s the long lost heir to a fortune and is part of a clan of families who make millions in the import/export trade and via a series of courier operations, running drugs and high value commodities via various inter-world routes.

The whole new family situation is a vicious tangle of politics. Several different factions seem to want Miriam dead and she doesn’t know who to trust. And then there’s Roland, a somewhat distant cousin, world-walker and her forbidden lover, Can she really trust him?

And just when it’s getting warmed up with Miriam accepting her place in the alternate world and determining that she would make changes from the inside… it stops.

Charles Stross: The Hidden Family – Merchant Princes #2

Ah, good, a satisfying ending to the second Merchant Princes book without tying up all the loose ends. Miriam is now settling into the idea of being Helge, the long lost countess with a whole heap of money at her disposal courtesy of the Clan who walk between worlds and who are settled in an alternate America that’s pretty well stuck in the medieval period. (Castles, mud, poor sanitation and disenfranchised peasants.)

This story opens immediately after The Family Trade finishes and really the two books are one continuous story. At the end of book one Miriam had gone to ground in the regular American world, hiding out with her friend and business partner, Paulette, trying to keep from getting killed by two separate factions from Other America. At the same time she’s trying to move her own plans forward for separating the family from its trade in illegal drug smuggling by proving to them that there are better ways of making more money. She suspects there’s a third world and finds it via a locket taken from a dead assassin.

This book is mostly about Miriam finding that third world, New Britain, and starting up a proftable business in it. It’s another historically diverse America, but still under British rule, at war with the French, so very security oriented, and at a level of technology that thinks steam-driven motor cars and airships are the ideal method of transportation. Miriam’s idea is to take the ideas from old (expired?) patents and sell them as new industrial ideas, starting with brake shoes for steam cars. She’s advancing tech in New Britain while making money from the industrial processes.

But all this has to be done while world walking between the three worlds, which is physically painful and too exhausting to do without resting in between. The only things (or people) that she can bring over must be literally carried across the threshold. So no bringing in fully formed combustion engines.

And there seems to be a new Clan that no one else knows about. They’re based in New Britain and harbour a grudge against the five wealthy world-walking clans in the second world.

This races to a confrontation where Miriam must face the whole Clan in a Special General Meeting (more like a courtroom drama) while at the same time, the mole on the Clan’s power base is moving against them all.

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My 2020 Reading

In picture form – newest first.

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Looking Both Ways – 2020 and 2021

As a year, 2020 sucked bigtime. It was not fit for purpose. If I’d paid good money for it I’d want a refund. Sure, it wasn’t too bad in January and February. The weather was miserable so I mostly stayed in, hiding behind my keyboard. My daughter and family visited for a few days in February, which was nice as we hadn’t seen them at Christmas due to son-in-law not having enough time off to make the visit worthwhile.

Then, in March we started to realise that this Corona virus thingy was real and growing. My mum is 95, so deeply into the endangered age range. We started self-isolating even before the full lockdown was announced. On 13th March my last outting was to collect my new-to-me car, agreed upon (and paid for) earlier in the month. My other half filled it up with petrol on the way home from the garage. That was 12th March, as I write this on 14th December it still has half a tank of petrol. At least we’ve not been contributing to climate change this year.

So from March onwards, we had all our groceries delivered (thank you, Tesco) and kept in touch with family and friends on Skype or Zoom.

All writing events were cancelled, conventions and Milford. I was due to attend the World Science Fiction Convention in New Zealand in July/August, but that dream (and Hobbiton and the Weta Workshop) vanished. Luckily I did get my flight money back thanks to good advice from my excellent travel agent. I was due to attend the Milford Writers’ Retreat in May which didn’t happen, and then the main Milford Workshop week in September was also cancelled. We’ve rolled everything on for both events to May and September 2021. Fingers crossed.

We were due to see our son and his wife in the summer. They are based in Virginia, USA, and were supposed to be running a study tour to Rome for son’s students. Of course, it didn’t happen, and all visits were off. Christmas is a non-starter for them because of the travelling and the 14 day isolation period. But to be honest, even though Boris says we can get together with family, I don’t think we should. It would be so silly to take a risk and fall victim to C-19 just before the vaccine kicks in. I’ve spoken to a lot of my contemporaries and they’re all saying the same thing. The virus doesn’t know it’s Christmas, so let’s not host a super-spreader event. If we get on top of C-19 now, next Christmas should be back to normal.

I kept up with my writing – which consisted mainly of editing The Amber Crown which I signed a contract for (with Daw) in the middle of the summer. At the moment it’s scheduled for publication in January 2022. I’ve seen the cover already but I can’t show you yet. Suffice it to say that I love it.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I’ve done a lot of reading this year and listened to a ton of audiobooks. My reading blog is here: https://jacey.dreamwidth.org/

So as 2020 draws to a close what is there to look forward to in 2021?

Well, there’s Brexit, of course. By the time you read this we might know whether there’s a deal or not, but as I write, hopes are dwindling. Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for Brexit. I’m pretty sure that if there was another referendum right now we’d be staying in the EU, but the Tories seem intent on driving the country off a cliff. Don’t get me started!

I have a short story due out in one of the Zombies Need Brains anthologies in 2021. This antho is called Derelict, so that’s my theme. I’m working on the story now. I don’t have a title yet. Sometimes titles come easily, sometimes I have to wait until a project is finished before I settle on something.

So what am I working on right now? I have a couple of linked books on my hard drive that need  thoroughly editing, but I think they’ve got legs. They are set in my Psi-Tech universe, but about a thousand years in the future of Empire of Dust, so there are no characters in common. The action all takes place on one planet, isolated from the space lanes.

As I write they are starting to roll out the Covid-19 vaccine in the UK. Mum should have hers in the first batch of local shots. BB and I will be in the queue as soon as we’re allowed. Once vaccinated, I hope we can catch up with friends and family again. BB and I have a significant wedding anniversary coming up in August, so we’re hoping to have a bit of a do. Fingers crossed.

Wishing you all a hopeful and healthy 2021. May you succeed in all your endeavours.

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Ann Aguirre: Grimspace – for your reading pleasure

I really liked this one. Telepathy, space travel, adventure, a damaged heroine and tormented telepathic hero. What’s not to like? Sirantha Jax carries the J-gene that enables her to jump ships across space. It’s a talent that’s likely to kill her. At 33 she’s already survived all her classmates who’ve burned out and cracked up or died on the job. It makes her a navigator-star of the Corp until she’s blamed for the accident that kills seventy people including her pilot and lover, Kai. Banged up in a psych facility her ‘doctors’ are setting her up to break her so she takes the fall for the crash and she looks all set to end up on a prison planet or in an asylum. And then March walks into her life – literally – and whisks her out of the lock-up into a desperate situation which becomes even more dire when he delivers her to a bunch of renegades who want to break the Corp’s stranglehold on jump transport. Various adventures follow as the Corp hunts Jax down while she and March and their oddball crew race to find the source of the J-gene to establish a new breed of jumper. There are battles with bloodthirsty predators, rival clans, the deadly Morgut, one of March’s old enemies, Corps goons’ and a shapeshifting bounty hunter that turns out to be not such a bad guy after all. And at the end there’s a big showdown. March and Jax versus the Corps. No prizes for guessing who wins. It’s an action adventure romance with a heroine full of attitude.

It’s well worth reading the whole series. Jax and March, together and independently, teeter from one crisis to another and neither of them succeeds without paying a hefty price, physically and mentally. There are six books altogether: Grimspace, Wanderlust, Doubleblind, Killbox, Aftermath, and Endgame.

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In My Other Life

I have two blogs, this one and a book blog at https://jacey.dreamwidth.org/ where I blog every book I read and every movie I see in the cinema – that one’s a bit thin on movies this year, but rich on reading. What I don’t blog about is deeply personal stuff. There’s such a thing as oversharing.

However I thought you might like a quick peep into what I do when I’m not writing.

In my other life I’m a music booking agent for folk musicians in the UK. For obvious reasons that’s a bit quiet at the moment. Covid-19 has eliminated a lot of work for arts professionals – and that includes performers, sound and lighting technicians, roadies, tour managers, venue staff and yes, managers and booking agents too. With lockdown all gigs have been cancelled until… at least summer 2021 depending on how fast they roll the vaccine out. I’ve rearranged some tours into 2022.

But let us not look at the blip that is Covid-19. Hopefully the arts scene will begin to recover once the vaccine has been widely deployed. I’m not here to moan. I’ve been in the music industry since 1985 when I became a performer with three-part a cappella harmony group Artisan with my husband, Brian Bedford and our very talented singist friend Hilary Spencer. I suppose you could classify us as folk, but we slide across the boundaries of a few other styles, too.

Hilary Jacey and Brian

We got together to sing at a fundraising night in our local village hall, discovered we had a good blend of voices, started singing at local folk clubs (the nearest American equivalent is the coffeehouse) and people began to ask us to go back… for money. It took a few years but by 1988 we knew we were going to go professional, so in 1989 we gave up the day jobs and with a pretty full diary of gigs, went for it full time, singing songs in three part harmony. We started off singing traditional and contemporary songs but it didn’t take long before Brian was writing all our songs. This is one of his. The tune is quite lovely.

What Am I Bid?

What am I bid for a bell with no sound
In a carpet of blue by a stream?
I’ll bid you a dream

And what am I bid for a single rose
With a guard of thorns the fool soon knows?
I’ll bid what I’ve seen

I pity the man who sees no need
For the silent bell for the worthless weed
I pity the man that needs to own
And keep for himself what was freely grown

So what am I bid for a bell with no sound
In a carpet of blue by a stream?
I’ll bid you a dream~

What am I bid for the dawn I see
Mounted here in a window frame?
I’ll bid you my name

What am I bid for the virgin kiss
And the memories of my youth?
I’ll bid you the truth

I pity the man who has to buy
The painted smile and the sculpted cry
The woodland scene of what might have been
And view it alone, in a vault of stone

So what am I bid for the dawn I see
Mounted here in a window frame?
I’ll bid you my name

Is it going once to the shifty nod?
Is it going twice to the builders hod?
Is it going cheap to the rich mans heirs?
It’s obscene to buy shares
In a single rose or a silent bell
I’ll bid them to Hell

So what am I bid for the single rose
With it’s guard of thorns the fool soon knows?
I’ll bid that it grows

And what am I bid for the  bells with no sound
And the streams by which they dwell?
I’ll bid them farewell

©  May 1992 Brian Bedford. Sung by Artisan on the CD Breathing Space

Friends kept asking us if we could earn enough, especially since Brian and I had two kids – then aged 7 and 10. We simply said, “Define enough.” We were doing what we loved and managing to keep the kids in shoes. In truth, singing isn’t the best paid job in the world, but we had twenty wonderful years on the road. We were indie before it became a thing. We made fourteen albums, one video tape (remember those?) and one DVD. (All the albums and the DVD are still available on the Artisan website.) We toured the length and breadth of Great Britain and also played in Belgium, Germany, Australia (and Hong Kong on the way) – and from 1995 to 2005 we did thirty one tours to the USA and Canada, playing festivals and venues, making lots of friends and driving several thousand miles. We’ve sung to 20,000 people at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and three people and the landlord’s dog in a pub in Folkestone in the middle of a snowstorm.We did our regukar concerts all year round and then in December we toured all over with our Christmas Show. (Yes, we have Christmas albums as well.) If you want to hear what we sounded like, there are samples on our album page, and links to audience-uploaded vids on Youtube.

All things come to an end, though, and in 2005, though we still loved singing, we’d had enough of travelling. We’re still friends and we never say never again, so we did reunion tours in 2010 (withb another new album, Random Play) and 2015, and we will still occasionally come out of retirement for a festival or a charity gig.

Steve and Al from Tanglefoot and Ritchie Parrish Ritchie

In 1996 we met the fabulous Canadian band, Tanglefoot at a festival in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I tried to get our (then) agent to book a UK tour for them, but he wasn’t able to do it, so I did. In 1998, the first Tanglefoot tour marked the beginning of my agency, which I still run. I book gigs for artists from abroad, including the wonderful Zulu Tradition and Ritchie-Parrish-Ritchie which is the band Tanglefoot morphed into after ten years of UK tours. I also book gigs for UK artists, and I facilitate Tier 5 immigration paperwork for artists from outside the EU (and from January 2021 for artists from the EU as well, depending on Brexit and what our government manages to negotiate). You can see what I do here on my agency website. What does an agent do? I research suitable venues and approach them to host a gig for my artist. If they say yes I negotiate the details, send out the contract, send publicity materials to the venue, and pass all the relevant information on to the artist. If artists are travelling from outside the UK I will often have them stay with us between gigs. It makes it easier for them and it’s fun for us. That’s not something most agents do, but I’ve turned into something of a music-mum over the years.

Zulu Tradition from KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

So where does my writing fit in to all that? I sold my first short story in 1998, then several more short stories while I was both Artisanning and agenting, and then my first full length novel in 2013, by which time the writing was only competing with the agency for my time.

I have six novels out now and the seventh, The Amber Crown, will be out at the beginning of 2022, published by DAW in the USA.

So that’s my other life.

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Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares books – for your reading pleasure.

I’ll be perfectly honest, though I liked the first Raine Benares book, Magic Lost, Trouble Found I wasn’t 100% in love with it. Luckily I liked it enough to get the second book, Armed and Magical, which picks up just days after the first book ends. Raine Benares, daughter of the criminally active Benares clan, is a small-time sorceress, a seeker, who has just, in the last book, become magically twinned with the Saghred, a soul-sucking Goblin stone of unimaginable dark power. She’s either its guardian or its servant. Which one of them will come out on top is by no means clear.

She’s come to the Isle of Mid, where the Conclave of Mages rules, in order to find a mage wily enough to unhook her from the stone. All she wants is her life back, but the stone has other ideas, and so do the factions that want to use it through her. The Goblins, sexy dark and dangerous, think it’s theirs. The Elves, gorgeous, light and equally dangerous want to keep it out of the Goblins’ hands and since Raine is an Elf they think she’s theirs. The Mages and their Conclave Guardians (think: magical police force) want to keep it locked away where it can’t do any damage. Rival mages just want to see Raine dead because they think she’s as dangerous as the stone. And its previous owner, nutty as a really poisonous fruit cake and supposedly dead a thousand years ago, wants it back and he doesn’t care how many souls he has to sacrifice to get it.

On Raine’s side is her dashing, piratical cousin Phaelan, her young spellsinger friend Piaras, now a student at the magic college, and (probably) the archmagus himself, plus Mychael, head of the Conclave Guardians, a hunky, spellsinging elf who is obviously head over heels in love with Raine, but that won’t strand in the way of his duty. If the Conclave says lock her up, he’ll do it.

This has a simple but twisty get-out-of-this-if-you-can theme. Raine has to avoid all attempts to gain control over her and the Saghred while keeping Piaras safe, protecting her own hide and thwarting the plans of at least four different factions. There’s a slow-burning romance, almost unacknowledged, between Mychael and Raine and a passionate attraction between Raine and her old friend/adversary Tam, a reformed Dark Mage – or is he… reformed that is.

By the time I’d read this I was totally hooked on the series. There are seven books in the main series with (so far) another two set in the same world featuring the handsome goblin Tam Nathratch, and Raine’s pirate relative, the criminally gifted Phelan Benares. Though these read like standard fantasy the flavour or much more contemporary and upbeat, more akin to urban fantasy, fast paced and exciting.

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Scene 1 of Winterwood – author analysis

This was first written for Tiffani Angus’ blog. Tiff teaches creative writing and publishing. Story interspersed with my comments in bold italic.

The Rowankind Trilogy, out now.

This first scene pretty much sprang into my mind fully formed. When I started to write I didn’t know the details and I didn’t know where it was going, but I had a solid impression of a young woman standing in the shadows of her dying mother’s bedroom, filled with resentment for something that happened in the past. I wasn’t even sure of the time period. It could have been anything from medieval to Victorian. After a lot of thought I settled on 1800, towards the end of the Enlightenment period, and in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. George III is on the throne (and suffering occasional bouts of madness), America has gained its independence, at some cost, and Napoleon is raging across the continent.

The setting is Plymouth, which is somewhere I haven’t been for a long time, but as a child/teen I went to Devon for family holidays. I remember Sutton Pool and the walls of the Citadel quite vividly. It’s become so much busier, now, of course. Sutton Pool is a crowded marina (you can see it all on Google Earth) but it still maps beautifully on to old plans of Plymouth streets. This is where the Mayflower sailed from.

If you want to read the whole scene straight through without comments before you look at the annotations, go here.

Or simply, read on…

The stuffy bedroom stank of sickness with an underlying taint of old lady, stale urine and unwashed clothes, poorly disguised with attar of roses. I’d never thought to return to Plymouth, to the house I’d once called home; a house with memories so bitter that I’d tried to scour them from my mind with salt water and blood.

Had something in my own magic drawn me back? I didn’t know why it should, though it still had the capacity to surprise me. I could control it at sea, but on land it gnawed at my insides. Even here, less than a mile from the harbour, power pulsed through my veins, heating my blood. I needed to take ship soon before I lost control.

I added the second paragraph later during the editing process because I realised I needed to put magic on the table right at the beginning of the book.

Little wonder that I’d felt no need to return home since eloping with Will.

Just dropping in a little teaser about the past. The important reveal comes later.

My ears adjusted to the muffled street sounds, my eyes to the curtained gloom. I began to pick out familiar shapes in the shadows, each one bringing back a memory and all of them painful.

She has such vivid recollections of an unhappy childhood. She was suddenly been replaced in her parents’ affections by a brother. The longed-for BOY. The heavy dark wood furniture is brooding and oppressive. I wanted the reader to taste that room, the bitterness, the old-lady staleness, the wooden furniture.

The dressing table with its monstrously carved lion mask and paw feet was where I had once sat and experimented with my mother’s face powder and patches, earning a beating with the back of a hairbrush for the mess.

The tall bed–a mountain to a small child–upon which I had first seen the tiny, shawl-wrapped form of my brother, Philip, the new son and heir, pride and joy, in my mother’s arms.

And there was the ornate screen I’d once hidden behind, trapped accidentally in some small mischief, to witness a larger mischief when my mother took Larien, our rowankind bondsman, to her lonely bed. I hadn’t known, then, what was happening beneath the covers, but I’d instinctively known that I shouldn’t be a witness, so I’d swallowed my puzzlement and kept silent.

No explanation yet, but the rowankind bondservants are wrapped tightly into the main plot line. I needed to drop them in here and expand on them later. We will meet Larien again, later in the book.

Now, the heaped covers on that same bed stirred and shifted.

“Philip?” Her voice trembled and her hand fluttered to her breast. “Am I dreaming?”

Even after all this time, her mother still thinks of the brother first.

My stomach churned and my magic flared. I swallowed hard, pushed it down and did my best to keep my voice low and level. “No, Mother, it’s me.”

“Rossalinde? Good God! Dressed like a man! You never had a sense of decorum.”

So now we get the name and the information that Rossalinde is in man’s clothing, and that she’s comfortable dressing that way. I hope I slipped that in without hitting it with a brick. NOTE I avoided the trap of Ross seeing herself in the mirror on the dressing table and describing herself.

It wasn’t a question of decorum. It was my armour. I wore the persona as well as the clothes.

“Don’t just stand there, come closer.” My mother beckoned me into the gloom. “Help me up.”

She had no expectation that I would disobey, so I didn’t. I put my right arm under hers and my left arm round her frail shoulders and eased her into a sitting position, hearing her sharp indrawn gasp as I moved her. I plumped up pillows, stepped back and turned away, needing the distance.

Ross immediately slips back into being the obedient daughter and then realises that she doesn’t have to any more, so she grabs a little personal space. I wanted to show that Ross’ relationship with her mother is multi-dimensional. She still wishes that things were different.

I twitched the curtain back from the sash window an inch or two to check that the street outside was still empty, listening hard for any sound of disturbance in the normality of Twiling Avenue–a disturbance that might indicate a hue and cry heading in my direction. I’d crept into the house via a back entrance through the next door neighbour’s shrubbery. The hedge surrounding the house across the street rippled as if a bird had fled its shelter. I waited to see if there was any further movement, but there wasn’t. So far there was nothing beyond the faint cries of the vendors in the market two streets over and the raucous clamour of the wheeling gulls.

‘Hue and cry’ I was going for slightly more archaic language and this would have been current at the time. Twiling Avenue is invented, but it’s on the very edge of the town in a place where there could have been a fine Georgian house. I’ve used maps of Plymouth at the time to chart Ross’ later progress through the town.

Satisfied that I was safe for now, I turned back to find my mother had closed her eyes for a moment. She snatched a series of shallow breaths before she gave one long sigh. And now we know that Ross is in danger, a fugitive, and half suspects this is a trap. She’s taken a big risk coming back to her family home. Opening her eyes again she regarded me long and steady. “Life as a pirate’s whore certainly seems to suit you.”

Her mother is full of bitterness too. If she wants reconciliation, she’s certainly not going to admit it.

“Yes, Mother.” Pirate’s whore! I pressed my lips together. It wasn’t worth arguing. She was wrong on both counts, pirate and whore. As privateers we cruised under Letters of Marque from Mad King George for prizes of French merchantmen, Bonaparte’s supply vessels. As to the whore part, Will and I had married almost seven years ago.

Another mention of Will. This also sets the timescale. Ross and her mother have not seen each other for seven years.

“So you finally risked your neck to come and say good-bye. I wondered how long it would take. You’re almost too late.”

I didn’t answer.

“Oh, come on, girl, don’t beat about the bush. My belly’s swollen tight as a football. This damn growth is sucking the life out of me. Does it make you happy to see me like this? Do you think I deserve it?”

I shook my head, only half sure I meant it. Damn her! She still had me where it hurt. I’d come to dance on her grave and found it empty.

I really liked this phrase. ‘I’d come to dance on her grave and found it empty.’ Sorry for being smug.

“What’s the matter?”

I waited for Cat got your tongue? but it didn’t come.

An echo of previous arguments.

“Give me some light, girl.”

I went to open the curtains.

“No, keep the day away. Lamp light’s kinder.”

I could have brightened the room with magic, but magic–specifically my use of it–had driven a wedge between us. She had wanted a world of safety and comfort with the only serious concerns being those of fashion and taste, acceptable manners and suitable suitors. Instead she’d been faced with my unacceptable talents.

I begin to peel back the layers of their mother/daughter relationship. Magic is one of the causes of their estrangement (in addition to the elopement with Will.)

I struck a phosphor match from the inlaid silver box on the table, lifted the lamp glass and lit the wick. It guttered and smoked like cheap penny whale oil. My mother’s standards were slipping.

This foreshadows her mother’s later revelation that the money has run out.

I took a deep breath… then, to show that she didn’t have complete control of the proceedings, I flopped down into the chair beside the bed, trying to look more casual than I felt.

Her iron grey hair was not many shades lighter than when I’d last seen her, seven years ago. Her skin was pale and translucent, but still unblemished. She’d always had good skin, my mother; still tight at fifty, as mine would probably be if the wind and the salt didn’t ruin it, or if the Mysterium didn’t hang me for a witch first.

She’s still trying to maintain both an emotional and a physical distance, but she can’t resist studying her mother’s features. And we get a little teaser about why she’s in danger. The Mysterium hangs witches. (Or at least, unregistered ones.)

She caught me studying her. “You really didn’t expect to see me alive, did you?”

I shrugged. I hadn’t known what to expect.

“But you came all the same.”

“I had to.” I still wasn’t sure why.

There is a solid magical reason, but we don’t find out until much later in the book. Ross’ mother knows, but she’s not going to let on. This is just a tiny bit of foreshadowing.

“Yes, you did.” She smirked. “Did you think to pick over my bones and see what I’d left you in my will?”

No, old woman, to confront you one last time and see if you still have the same effect on me. I cleared my throat. “I don’t want your money.”

“Good, because I have none.” She pushed herself forward off her pillows with one elbow. “Every last penny from your father’s investments has gone to pay the bills. I’ve had to sell the plate and my jewellery, such as it was. All that’s left is show. This disease has saved me from the workhouse.” She sank back. “Don’t say you’re sorry.”

“I won’t… because I’m not.”

Leaving had been the best thing I’d ever done. Life with Will had been infinitely more tender than it had ever been at home. I didn’t regret a minute of it. I wished there had been more.

So where is Will now? I’m laying groundwork for the reveal.

The harridan regarded me through half-closed eyes. “Have I got any by-blow grandchildren I should know about?”

“No.” There had been one, born early, but the little mite had not lasted beyond his second day. She didn’t need to know that.

“Not up to it, is he, this Redbeard of yours? Or have you unmanned him with your witchcraft?”

I ignored her taunts. “What do you want, forgiveness? Reconciliation?”

“What do I want?” She screwed her face up in the semblance of a laugh, but it turned to a grimace.

“You nearly got us killed, Mother, or have you conveniently forgotten?”

“That murdering thief took what was mine.”

That would be the ship she was talking about, not me.

Her mother was more annoyed that Ross and Will took the vessel that was supposed to have been Ross’ dowry, than she was about Ross running off.

“That murdering thief, as you put it, saved my life.”

And my soul and my sanity, but I didn’t tell her that. He’d taught me to be a man by day and a woman by night, to use a sword and pistol and to captain a ship. He’d been my love, my strength and my mentor. Since his death I’d been Captain Redbeard Tremayne in his stead–three years a privateer captain in my own right.

“Is he with you now?”

“He’s always with me.”

That wasn’t a lie. Will’s ghost showed up at the most unlikely times, sometimes as nothing more than a whisper on the wind.

So Ross’ happy-ever-after was short lived, but here I introduce Will’s ghost who is a major character in what becomes a love triangle later in the book. We don’t actually meet Will’s ghost until the next chapter, but he’s a jealous ghost and also slightly ambivalent. Ghosts don’t always have the same goal in death as they did in life.

“So you only came to gloat and to see what was left.”

“I don’t want anything of yours. I never did.”

“Oh, don’t worry, what’s coming to you is not mine. I’m only passing it on… one final obligation to the past.” Her voice, still sharp, caught in her throat and she coughed.

“Do you want a drink?” I asked, suddenly seeing her as a lonely and sick old woman.

“I want nothing from you.” She screwed up her eyes. Her hand went to her belly. I could only stand by while she struggled against whatever pain wracked her body.

Ross might be ready for reconciliation if her mother gave the slightest opportunity, but her mother isn’t going to relent.

Finally she spoke again. “In the chest at the foot of the bed, below the sheet.”

I knelt and ran my fingers across it. It had been my father’s first sea-chest, oak with a tarnished brass binding. I let my fingers linger over his initials burnt into the top. He’d been an absentee father, always away on one long voyage after another, but I’d loved his homecomings: the feel of his scratchy beard on my cheek as he hugged me, the smell of sea salt and pipe tobacco.

I pulled open the catch and lifted the lid.

“Don’t disturb things. Feel beneath the left hand edge.”

I slid my hand under the folded linen. My fingers touched something smooth and cool. I felt the snap and fizz of magic and jerked back, but it was too late, the thing, whatever it was, had already tasted me. Damn my mother. What had she done?

I drew the object out to look and found it to be a small, polished, wooden box, not much deeper than my thumb. I’d never seen its like before, but I knew winterwood when I saw it, and knew full well what it was. The grain held a rainbow from the gold of oak, to the rich red of mahogany, shot through with ebony hues. It sat comfortably in the palm of my hand, so finely crafted it was almost seamless.

My magic rose up to meet it.

I tried the lid. “It’s locked. Is this some kind of riddle?”

She had an odd expression on her face. “Your inheritance.”

“How does it open? What’s inside it?”

“That’s for you to find out. I never wanted any of it.”

My head was full of questions. My mother hated magic, even the sleight of hand tricks of street illusionists. How could this be any inheritance of mine? Yet, I felt that it was.

Mother deliberately tricked Ross into touching the object. It shows she knows more about magic than she’s ever let on, but Ross doesn’t realise this at the time. Ross getting the box is the inciting incident that kicks off the whole story.

I turned the box around in my hands. There was something trapped inside that wanted its freedom. No point in asking if anyone had tried to saw it open. You don’t work ensorcelled winterwood with human tools.

Wrapping both hands around the box, I could feel it was alive with promise. It didn’t seem to have a taint of the black about it, but it didn’t have to be dark magic to be dangerous.

I shuddered. “I don’t want it.”

Instant rejection of the ‘call to adventure’ if you subscribe to ‘The Hero’s Journey.’

“It’s yours now. You’ve touched it. I’ve never handled it without gloves.”

“Where did it come from?”

She shook her head. “Family.”

“Neither you nor Father ever mentioned family, not even my grandparents.”

“Long gone, all of them. Gone and forgotten.”

“I don’t even know their names.”

“And better that way. We left all that behind us. We started afresh, your father and I, making our own place in society. It wasn’t easy even in this tarry-trousers town. Your ancestors companied with royalty, you know, though much good it did them in the end. You’re a lady, Rossalinde, not a hoyden.” She winced, but whether from the memories or the pain I couldn’t tell. “That blasted thing is all that’s left of the past. It followed me, but it’s too much to… ” Her voice tailed off, then she rallied. “I wasn’t having any of it. It’s your responsibility now. I meant to give it to you when you came of age.” She narrowed her eyes and glared at me. “How old are you, anyway?”

‘hoyden’ I tried to use words in keeping with the century without losing the immediate appeal of contemporary dialogue. You tread a fine line when writing about the past, so I tried to keep the dialogue free from contemporary words with a light sprinkling of words that feel period-appropriate.

I was lean and hard from life at sea. You didn’t go soft in my line of work. “I’m not yet five and twenty, Mother.” I held up the box and stared at it. “What if I can’t open it?”

“I suppose you’ll have to pass it on to the next generation.”

“There won’t be a next generation.”

She shrugged and waved me away with one hand.

“Give it to Philip.” I held it out to her, but she shrank back from it and her eyes moistened at my brother’s name. What had he been up to now? Likely he was the one who’d spent all her money. I hadn’t seen Philip for seven years, but I doubted he’d reformed in that time. He’d been a sweet babe, but had grown into a spoilt brat, manipulative and selfish, and last I saw he was carrying his boyhood traits into adolescence, turning into an opportunist with a slippery tongue.

“Always to the firstborn. But you’re behind the times, girl. Philip’s dead. Dead these last seven months.” Her voice broke on the last words.

“Dead?” I must have sounded stupid, but an early death was the last thing I’d envisioned for Philip.

The grievances I’d held against him for years melted away in an instant. All I could think of was the child who’d followed me round begging that I give him a horsey ride, or told him a story.

“How?”

“A duel. In London. A matter of honour was the way it was written to me.”

 “Oh.” It was such an ineffectual thing to say, but right at that moment I didn’t really know how I felt. Had Philip actually developed a sense of honour as he grew? Was there a better side to my brother that I’d never seen? I hoped so.

Ross would like to think the best of Philip. This foreshadows something that happens later in the book when Philip reappears, not dead after all, and she gives him the benefit of the doubt, which is a bad move.

“Is that all you can say? You didn’t deserve a brother. You never had any love for him.”

I let that go. It wasn’t true.

“I thought you might have changed.”

My mother’s words startled me and I realised my mind had wandered into the past. Stay sharp. This might yet be a trap, some petty revenge for the wrongs she perceived that I heaped on her: loss of wealth, loss of station; loss of son. Next she’d be blaming me for the loss of my father, though only the sea was to blame for that.

“That’s all I’ve got for you.” She turned away from me. “It’s done. Now, get out.”

“Mother I–“

“I’m ready for my medicine.”

Probably laudanum. She’s about to take an overdose. She’s done what she needed to do – pass on the box – and now she welcomes a quick death rather than a slow and painful one from cancer.

I knew it would be the last time I’d see her. I wanted to say how sorry I was. Sorry for ruining her life; sorry for Philip’s death. I wanted to take her frail body in my arms and hold her like I could never remember her holding me, but there was nothing between us except bitterness. Even dying, there was no forgiveness.

Even as she thinks this, she knows it will never happen.

I turned and walked out, not looking back.

I wrote this scene to find out what was happening, who my protagonist was and what major factors were going to shape the action. It’s largely survived intact through all the edits. What do we know about Rossalinde at the end of this scene?

She’s not yet 25. She eloped 7 years ago with Will Tremayne. They were together for 4 years before he died, and since then she’s dressed in men’s clothes and taken his place as captain of their privateer ship. As privateers they have letters or marque from the crown. She’s pretty obviously a strong woman, but in this scene she’s vulnerable. She has magic and the Mysterium will hang her if they catch her. (We don’t yet know what the Mysterium is.) She’s worried that this visit to her mother’s deathbed is a trap and that she’s been followed.

There was a child, but he did not live.

Ross had a brother called Philip. She resented him as a child, when he replaced her in her parents’ affections. She might have cared for him, but he turned into a spoiled brat. And now he’s dead, which jolts her as she never expected him to die young.

Ross would accept reconciliation if her mother was open to it, but the old woman is going to hold on to her grievances until the bitter end. She has one last duty to discharge, to pass on the box made of ensorcelled wood.

Both the Mysterium and a rowankind bondsman have been mentioned but not explained. The rowankind was named as Larien. All are vital to the future plot.

By the time I finished writing this the whole story had coalesced in my mind – maybe not the detail, but I knew what the main plot was, and how it would end.

You can buy my books from Amazon on both sides of the Atlantic. In North America it’s also available on Kindle and as ebooks from Barnes and Noble, and from good independent bookstores. Buy books, make an author very happy.

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Anne Lyle: Night’s Masque Trilogy – for your reading pleasure

Published by Angry Robot, The Alchemist of Souls, Merchant of Dreams, and The Prince of Lies are the three books in Anne Lyle’s Night’s Mask Trilogy, set in Elizabethan London with (kind of) aliens. Queen Elizabeth has married, produced heirs and is now widowed. Voyagers to the New World have found a race of non-human skraylings who have a strange kind of magic that humans have barely fathomed. One of these talents is the ability to be reborn. It’s against Skrayling law to be reincarnated as a human, but renegade skraylings exist, known as guisers, and they are dangerous. Skrayling-human politics are finely balanced. The crown appreciates Skrayling trade – even depends on it – while at the same time fearing the strangers. The Skraylings also have their own internal political struggles and factions.

In the first book Mal Catelyn, well-born but now a down-on-his-luck soldier of fortune, is hired as bodyguard to the new skrayling ambassador to London, it’s not by accident. He has to overcome his own prejudices, and guilt for what his family once did. He’s on an even steeper learning curve when he also gets hired by Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster. A job he can’t refuse. Mal’s in a tricky position, a secret Catholic, he has to hide his faith, but he has other secrets, too. His twin brother Sandy, incarcerated in Bedlam, is just one of them, but what Mal learns from the Skrayling ambassador turns his world upside down and gives him an even bigger secret to guard.

The second book is a satisfyingly convoluted plot involving French politics, a cross-dressing female, Mal’s brother, Sandy (sometimes Skrayling, sometimes not) and a spying mission to Venice on behalf of Walsingham.

In the third book Mal has been knighted for his efforts and now, at last, has his old home reinstated, his brother returned to sanity, a wife and an adopted son. But there’s a plot afoot. The queen’s grandchild is a guiser, human seeming but with a Skrayling soul and his aim is to take the throne. Mal must stop him, but killing the queen’s grandchild is hardly an option, so in this book Mal fights magic with magic. There’s a satisfactory – if bittersweet – conclusion to the whole trilogy.

I love the setting, the characters and the complexity of this trilogy, and it doesn’t hurt that the covers are gorgeous. Highly recommended.

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Books etc. for Christmas

2020 has not been the year it was supposed to be. (Not fit for purpose. Can I get a refund?) I didn’t get anywhere as much writing done as I could have, but I read, and re-read an awful lot. Some of these books have been lockdown lifesavers. Now that gifty time of year is almost on us, Time to start ordering. Here are my recommendations.

Of course, I’d love it if you bought my books too, for yourself or for your friends. Buying their books is the best present you can give any author. Go to my website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk for details of mine. Copies are available via Amazon in the UK or Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or any good bookshop in the USA and Canada. (I heartily recommend Bakka-Phoenix Books in Toronto; one of my favourite SF bookstores.)

And while you’re at it, when I sang with Artisan we made a number of CDs – all still available – including some Christmas themed ones which make good gifts. If you like harmony singing, go and take a listen: http://artisan-harmony.com/albums.htm

Anything by Jodie Taylor. Her St Mary’s books feature a bunch of disaster magnets who investigate historical events in contemporary time. (Don’t call it time travel.) Start with Just one Damn Thing After Another. This year’s offering is Plan for the Worst, the 11th book in the series with a delicious reveal about Markham as a twist in the tale. (Markham is one of my favourite characters.)Books are light and funny with a serious thread running through. New out this year is Hard Time – the second book of the Time Police. If you want to start with the first it’s Doing Time. This is a spin off series from the Main St Mary’s novels featuring Matthew Farrell, offspring of St Mary’s regulars, Max and Leon. Ms Taylor also writes the Frogmorton Farm series starting with The Nothing Girl. I’ve never read a book of hers that I didn’t like.

Anything by Lois McMaster Bujold. She writes both fantasy and science fiction. My current favourite book is Curse of Chalion, a fantasy set in a country not unlike medieval Spain featuring the best hero ever, Cazaril. Her Science fiction is set in the universe of the Vorkosigan family, dubbed the Vorkosiverse by fans. The first two book (chronologically) are the duo now available as Cordelia’s Honour, about Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan, but the main character in most of the books is Miles Vorkosigan, their song. Born stunted and brittle-bones onto a society with a proud warrior tradition, Mikes has to thing his way out of situations that his overthinking has got him into in the first place. The Warrior’s Apprentice is a good starting place.

John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy is thoroughly absorbing. Set in a universe where the routes between human habitats are gradually disappearing. Start with The Collapsing Empire, then The Consuming Fire, and finally, The Last Emperox.

Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer is set in the aftermath of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies in 1815. Here are six separate interwoven (and sometimes desperate) stories, connected only by the effects of the Year Without a Summer. More literary/historical than SF.

Juliet E McKenna has written a series of books about a half Dryad who (because of his heritage) ends up dealing with magical threats from British myth and legend. Start with The Green Man’s Son, and then go on to The Green Man’s Foe. This year’s offering is The Green Man’s Silence. Think: urban fantasy gone rural.

I’ve read two very different books by Katherine Addison this year: The Goblin Emperor a fantasy with a lot of court intrigue, and The Angel of the Crows which is set in a variant of Victorian London, and riffs off Sherlock. Both excellent.

My friend, Liz Williams, has an excellent new book out, Comet Weather, featuring four very different sisters, attuned to the magic around them, in search of their missing mother. Highly recommended.

T. Kingfisher is the pen name of well-loved children’s author, Ursula Vernon. She writes grown-up books as T. Kingfisher. This year’s books are A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, (which would also be fine for a teen reader). My absolute favourite of hers, however, is Swordheart, which I read last year. Also Paladin’s Grace – another fantastic romantic fantasy book.

Last year I discovered the Greatcoats quartet by Sebastien de Castell. I loved these so much I raced through all four back to back. Titles are: Traitor’s Blade,  Knight’s Shadow,  Saint’s Blood,  and Tyrant’s Throne. Four books, one long story.

I’ve mentioned Leigh Bardugo on previous book lists. I still think Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are the best things she’s written. Massively complex characters, dark plot lines. These are supposedly YA books, but I think they are better than her more recent book which is supposedly for adults.

If you like light, racy historical romances, you can’t do much better than Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton and Rokesby books. The two families are intertwined. She handles historical romance with a light touch. Expect humour and witty dialogue. The Bridgertons are soon to be a TV series. It doesn’t matter if you don’t read in order.

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Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora – for your reading pleasure

Thoroughly absorbing, interesting characters who are changed by events that happen to them, great backstory, twisty plot in the front-story leading to nail-biting tension. Highly recommended.

Trying not to give away too many spoilers we get to see the formation of the Gentlemen Bastards, a gang of young men devoted to the gentle art of thievery in a fantasy analogue of Venice. Through inserted backstory interludes we see them as starveling orphans being gradually educated and moulded into a five-man gang so close-mouthed that even the other thieves in the city (and the Capa who rules them all) don’t know what they get up to.

Locke is a cocky child, too clever for his own good, who grows up into a cocky Gentleman Bastard devising elaborate scams to part the rich from their money. The balance of power changes with the arrival of the Grey King and his powerful bondmage, a challenge to the Capa Barsavi and his stable rule of the underworld, and an even bigger challenge to Locke and his gang who, as it turns out, are still too clever for their own good.

This builds from Locke’s success through setback upon setback. There are penalties and consequences for everyone, but a very satisfying conclusion kept me up reading way later than I should.

There are two more Gentleman Bastard books, also excellent, and potentially one more, as yet unpublished, if it ever appears.

Happy reading.

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What I learned about Tallinn that I couldn’t have found out from a guidebook.

I was supposed to be going to the World Science Fiction Convention in New Zealand this year, a country I’ve never been to, even though I visited Ausralia in 2000. Australia and NZ look conveniently close when viewed on a world map, but believe me, they aren’t. I’d done my research, checked out trains for travelling from Auckland to Wellington, sussed out potential visits to Hobbiton, the Weta Workshop and geothermal and cultural sites. I found out lots of things I didn’t know, but it’s not a substitute for being there.

So this is my trip to Tallinn in 2017, which was a research trip tagged on to another Worldcon trip. This blog was first posted on August 21, 2017

Following my trip to the World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, I took a side trip to Tallinn to do some research for my novel-in-progress ‘The Amber Crown’ set in an analogue of the Baltic States in a time period roughly equivalent to the mid 1600s. It’s only a couple of hours by ferry from Finland to Estonia.

It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do an actual research trip, and I’m so glad I did because there were things which I couldn’t possibly have learned from a guidebook. Getting a general feel for the place was just the start of it.

Tallinn-cobbles

So what did I learn by being there?

Cobbles are very difficult to walk on. Most of the streets I think of as cobbled in England are actually paved with flattish stone sets (as are some of the Tallinn Streets) but Estonian cobbles are round-topped, uneven in size and shape, and really easy to trip and slip on. Street chases will have to be re-thought.

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Our carriage. Note the stone sets in the troad.

We took a horse-drawn trip round the Old Town in a landau-type of carriage drawn by a single (gorgeous) Friesian horse. The horse didn’t seem to have problems with either the cobbles or the stone sets, but the carriage was a bumpy ride despite the springing – and that was at a sedate walk. In an older type of unsprung vehicle any pace faster than a walk would be likely to shake your teeth out of your head.

I knew Tallinn (or Reval as it was called way-back-when) was one of the northern outposts of the Hanseatic League, that confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns which dominated Northern Europe and the Baltic maritime trade for three centuries from the Gulf of Finland through the Skagerrack and the Kattegat to the North Sea. I hadn’t realised, however, how enormous the Hansa influence was.

The medieval buildings are very different from English Medieval architecture, and houses are not unlike the frontages in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels in terms of the colour-washed walls, the steep gables (houses often gable-end on to the road) and the multiple rows of tiny attic windows set into red tiled roofs. Could this commonality be to do with ideas spread via the Hanseatic League?

The architectural style is labelled ‘Gothic’. Since I always associated Gothic architecture with the great sweeping cathedrals such as York Minster, all pointy windows and flying buttresses, I’m not sure Gothic in this context means what I think it means.VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

6 Kuninga Street6 Kuninga Street

Helpful wall plaques6 Kuninga plan

6 Kuninga Street. The frontage is to the left of the plan. Keldrikorrus mean basement in Estonian.

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This is a blurry shot (no flash photography or tripods allowed) of a fireplace in the Tallinn City Museum with a strange lowered ceiling supported by a masonry pillar. This wasn’t a one-off, similar constructions appear all over the town.

I looked up Tallinn’s architecture on the web and found (on visittallinn.ee) which seems to back up my ideas about the Hanseatic League:

The most important period in the architectural development of Tallinn was 13-16th century. Tallinn’s gothic architecture was influenced by the architecture of the island of Gotland, Lower Rhine and Westfalen and subsequently by the architecture of the Hanseatic Towns and the German Order. Local construction material – limestone – added character to the architecture.

And:

In the 15th century (Late Gothic era), a town hall, guild building, convent buildings and residential houses were built in the town. These are characterised by the high dormers on the high-stretched facades. Of the different layouts, the prevalent type of house was that with two rooms, a diele and a dornse. A diele is a spacious room that extends to the height of two storeys with a fireplace at the back wall; this type of building was primarily used as an office or workshop. And behind it was the dornse – a living room with hot-air heating. The upstairs, cellars and attics were used as storage rooms.

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More merchants’ houses with cranes

Tallinn’s town plan is largely unaltered from the 13th and 14th centuries, with narrow streets and even narrower alleyways. Unlike Medieval York where streets such as The Shambles are tunnel-like because of the cantilevered upper floors hanging over the road, the houses of Tallinn are straight up, and then up some more, with narrow houses rising three or four storeys and then two further levels of windows in the steep pitch of the red-tiled roofs. There are plenty of houses which might have been merchants’ houses because they have a crane over a tall doorway on the upper floors and – according to a model in the city museum – the upper floors in the roof-space were often used as storage. Though it would seem logical to store heavy goods on, or close to, ground level, I guess that using the attics for storage was also good for security.VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

Tallinn Town Hall.

Almost every entrance to a medieval building was either up or down steps – sometimes just one or two, sometimes seven or eight. Of course, street levels may have changed. (They’re not likely to be the same stone sets and cobbles from the 1600s or earlier, though to be fair the medieval doorways did not appear to be compromised by a significant change in street level.) The ‘ground’ floors of many shops (such as the old apothecary’s shop still running as a pharmacy is half a flight of steps up (with, no doubt, a cellar below). The Town Hall entrance is down half a flight of steps, so the lowest level (a vaulted space, probably once a cellar) is half above/half below street level. The old steps to the next upper level are massively steep and narrow, and there’s a similar set of steps to the ‘posh’ bit, i.e. the council chamber and court room. (Luckily there’s a newer stair that we discovered after climbing the first flight and that meant we didn’t have to brave the second flight and could exit via the easier steps.)VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

Town Hall interior

I am always humbled when I travel abroad that English is spoken in so many countries, at least in the main tourist centres. In today’s Tallinn I heard Russian, French, German, Japanese and a number of Nordic languages which my ear couldn’t differentiate from Estonian – Finnish and Swedish, I expect. But most people had a smattering of English and many people spoke it well and almost unaccented. And so it must have been when Tallinn was a great trading port. I doubt that English was common, but to trade with Germany, Sweden and Russia, there must have been a core of multi-lingual people, at least in the port area and the trading heart of the city.

In addition to all the things I gleaned that are useful for my book, I also discovered that Tallinn is just as beautiful as its reputation says and that I want to go back there some day.

Tip for first time Tallinn tourists. Avoid the bicycle taxis from the ferry port to the city. They’ll charge you twice as much as they originally quoted by saying the price is per person, and lie about being able to take you into the Old Town itself, leaving you to lug heavy cases from the Viru Gate to your hotel. (Luckily that was only a short walk for us.) So the last thing I learned from Tallinn is that there’s always someone willing to take advantage of a stranger. A good lesson.

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The Road to Publication – a guest blog by Tony Ballantyne

Short story collections don’t sell. Everyone in publishing will tell you that.

Every writer who has a few short stories under their belt loves the idea of having them collected into a slim volume.  Unfortunately, very few people are interested in reading them.

Best selling authors have the clout to get their anthologies publised. You can see them smiling in the publicity photographs, delighted to have their precious children are out there in the world. Look closely and you’ll see their agent and editor exchanging glances in the background. They’re waiting for their charge to get it out of their system so they can get back to writing another novel. That’s where the real money is.

And that’s best selling authors. You’d have to be mad to write a short story collection.

I didn’t intend to write Midway. I had an idea for a novel sit in an old cotton mill near where I live. I was working on the preliminary notes when my father took ill. The next six months, the last months of his life, threw everything into turmoil. The mill stories got caught up in my thoughts at the time and became my way of dealing with the situation. I wrote little else that year, but it didn’t matter. Midway was my catharsis. But I finished the book and life moved on.

I wondered at first about seeking publication. The stories were very personal. It was my wife who persuaded me to send them out into the world. As she pointed out, other people had been through the same thing. They might find them helpful.

It turns out she was right. This is the first book I’ve written that my friends have read. By that I mean my non writer friends, my friends who aren’t SF or Fantasy fans. The vast majority of the people I know, in other words.

Of course, my friends have bought my books in the past, but that was just out of politeness. They read the first chapter, but it wasn’t for them.  I don’t have a problem with that, we all have different tastes and interests.

But to my surprise this book connects with many people.  No, not to my surprise. My wife said it first, and she was right. This book is for people who’ve been through the same thing. People who recognise the situations depicted in it.

Someone said to me: this book made me cry. Well, that’s why I wrote it, to try and understand those feelings. I think I understand them better now.

So, the book is out, it’s published. If it sells a hundred copies I’ll be delighted, but it doesn’t matter.

Publication wasn’t the primary aim of this book.

Tony Ballantyne

 Tony Ballantyne is the author of Dream London, the Penrose series and the Recursion series. He has also written many short stories.

Tony grew up in County Durham in the North East of England. He studied Maths at Manchester University before moving to London where he taught Maths and IT.

https://tonyballantyne.com

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Liz Williams: The Snake Agent – for your reading pleasure

Any book which opens with the main protagonist swinging by his heels in Hell has got my attention from page one. This grabbed me and never let me go.

Det. Insp. Chen is the cop whose responsibilities include the underworld as it impinges upon his city – the franchise city of Singapore 3. He’s a snake agent, one of the people who can travel between earth and Hell, so when a murdered young woman’s soul fails to end up in the realm above where it was destined to go, Chen has to follow the clues to Hell and back uncovering corruption in the highest echelons. He’s teamed with his Hellish counterpart the Seneschal Zhu Irzh, demon vice cop. Starsky and Hutch they are not, but there’s an element of the buddy-cop story as each character gets the measure of the other. Chen also has to avoid his wife’s relatives who are understandably miffed as she’s a demon he snatched from Hell before the story begins with a guardian who is sometimes a badger and other times a teakettle.

This is the first of Liz William’s Detective Inspector Chen books and introduces us to the strange and wonderful world of Singapore 3 where ordinary mortals, if they know what they’re doing, can travel between earth, hell and heaven – and return again. The background is richly drawn. The interweaving of myth, legend and imagination combines flawlessly. Highly recommended.

Happy reading.

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Domestication in a time of Coronavirus

Sapiens audioI’m currently reading/listening to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari who says that early farmers did not domesticate wheat, wheat domesticated them. By the process of gradually farming it rather than gathering wild grains, early farmers (previously nomadic) began to stay in one camp for increasingly long periods to take advantage of wild (then planted) wheat until eventually they built small settlements. From then on they became a slave to their wheat, tending it, protecting it and finally harvesting and storing it. Thus they became domesticated by virtue of growing rather than gathering grain.

I’m being domesticated by my garden.

Google defines domesticated thus:
adjective: domesticated

  • (of an animal) tame and kept as a pet or on a farm. – “domesticated dogs”
  • (of a plant) cultivated for food; naturalized. -“domesticated crops”
  • Humorous – (especially of a man) fond of home life and housework.

I’m not sure about the ‘especially of a man’ thing. I’ve never been very domesticated as in ‘fond of housework’ but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve become domesticated by my own apple trees.

There’s a silly meme that Yorkshire folks are parsimonious.

  • “A Yorkshireman is like a Scotsman with the generosity squeezed out of him.”
  • “A Yorkshireman would cut a ha’penny in half.”

In my case it manifests as not wanting to waste anything, so after seven or eight years of  giving us no fruit at all, a couple of years ago our apple trees decided to deliver a modest harvest of apples, I was determined to make use of them. The bigger ones I peeled, sliced and oven-dried (yummy) and the smaller or less than perfect ones I turned into apple jelly. And because there’s only so much basic apple jelly that you can eat or give away I started to experiment.

I made apple jelly with:

  • Christmas spices
  • Mulled wine
  • Red wine
  • Port wine
  • Sloe gin
  • White wine
  • Cider

You can, no doubt, see a theme developing.

Having bought a jam pan, and not wishing to waste it (i.e. leave it standing idle) I made strawberry jam and rhubarb jam with our own fruit which I’d frozen earlier in the season. At a friend’s request I bought gooseberries to make jam. It would have been cheaper to buy gooseberry jam, so I’ve since planted gooseberry bushes and hope to make it with my own fruit next year. I’ve also put in blackcurrants and jostaberries (a cross between gooseberry and blackcurrant). I have space for raspberries to go in next year.

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Those on my side of the Atlantic will acknowledge the looming threat of Brexit, since our government (no, I didn’t vote for them) seems determined to drive us off the edge of a cliff with no tradedeals in place by the deadline of 31st December 2020. So with food security in mind we returned to our raised beds (neglected for a few years), bought seeds, sowed and planted our vegetable garden. We put in onions, beans (broad and runner), peas (snap and pod), cabbage, beetroot, kohlrabi (purple and white), cauliflower, parsnips, carrots (yellow and orange varieties), garlic and six different varieties of courgettes. The much neglected strawberry bed continued to produce though we had to grab the fruit before the slugs did.

Veg small

So when Covid-19 hit, and the UK went into social isolation, we already had a head start on the garden and it absorbed some of our lockdown time. It helped to keep us sane to be honest. We were completely self-sufficient in vegetables during July, August and September. As I write this at the beginning of October we’ve only just begun to supplement what’s in the garden with a few items shop-bought veg. The greenhouse has produced four different varieties of tomatoes, Purple Ukraine, Ruthie, Yellow Submarine, and Pink Tiger. I have new potatoes and fantastic onions in store, and carrots and parsnips still in the ground. The leeks are growing nicely, and we’re planting chard, kale, savoy cabbage and Brussels sprouts and swede for the winter and will put in onion sets and broad beans to overwinter and produce earlier crops next spring.

last-tomatoes.

That’s real domestication for you. I don’t know whether to be pleased or horrified!

And just because I couldn’t resist… here’s my Calendar Girls photo (complete with lockdown hair) without the embarrassment of getting undressed! What whoppers!

Whoppers

 

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Georgette Heyer: The Toll Gate for your reading pleasure

Everyone has their favourite Heyer. This is one of mine.

When Crazy Jack Staple, lately of Wellington’s army returns to civilian life after the defeat of Napoleon, he finds that there’s not much to satisfy the adrenaline junkie he’s become, and no woman who really interests him. Then, while escaping from his boring cousin’s boring houseparty he rides into Derbyshire to visit a friend and puts up for the night at a lonely toll gate cottage when he finds the gate-keeper has left his ten year old son, Ben, alone and petrified.

Jack not only finds a mystery, but he finds romance in the shape of Nell, granddaughter of the ailing squire, competent and capable, and somewhat too tall for polite society and the ‘ton.’ It’s love at first sight for Jack, but since he’s masquerading as the gatekeeper’s cousin Nell takes a bit of convincing, however her retainers (faithful groom and nurse/companion) have no qualms about Jack and quickly decide that he’s Nell’s likely saviour as she’ll soon be ousted from her home when her grandfather dies (as he has left it to her the obvious male heir, her unsympathetic cousin).

At its heart this is as much mystery as romance. The keeper, Ben’s father, only stepped out for an hour, but now he’s missing. Nell’s odious cousin and his even more odious friend have installed themselves in the manor which the cousin hopes soon to inherit, but they don’t seem to have a very good reason for doing so. There’s a good-hearted highwayman and a Bow Street Runner sniffing around.

Jack latches on to the mystery, determined to solve it and so the romance almost takes a back seat until romance and mystery collide. There’s much more derring-do than in Heyer’s usual Regency Romances and it fairly bounds along to a pistols and fisticuffs conclusion.

The characters are well-drawn from Jack and Nell, to Nell’s grandfather, once a sportsman and now laid low by a stroke, but far from unaware that something is amiss. The low characters nearly all speak thieves cant, which is probably unrealistic as they aren’t all thieves. Jack manages passable cant-speak, too and I suspect Ms Heyer had access to Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) on her desk as she comes out with words like ‘jobbernoll’ and ‘slumguzzle’ and phrases like ‘dicked in the head.’

Enjoy reading.

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