Great News!

5 Oct

Hi, everyone

As you know, ten or so days ago I went for a biopsy after the MRI scan revealed traces of something where the cancer was, a year ago.  (This area was treated with chemo, then blasted with radioactivity.)  The biopsy revealed that it was just dead flesh!  WhoHoo!

Obviously, the doctor was at pains to tell me that there might be something tiny left behind – I’m due for another CT scan in January – and there is a possibility that it might come back at a later date, but for the moment I’m clear.  As you can imagine, this is wonderful news!

And, in other news, I’m 13 chapters into The Ancient Lie.  Hope to get it done by the end of the month.

Chris

OUT NOW – Favour The Bold (The Empire’s Corps XVI)

27 Sep

An all-new story of The Empire’s Corps!

Earth has fallen.  The Core Worlds have collapsed into chaos.  War is breaking out everywhere as planetary governments declare independence, entire sectors slip out of contact and warlords battle for power.  The remnants of the once-great Empire are tearing themselves apart.

 In the shadows, the Terran Marine Corps works to save what little they can to preserve civilisation and build a better tomorrow.  But powerful factions are competing with them, determined to establish their own order.  If they cannot be stopped, if the marines cannot hold the line, the galaxy will fall into a new dark age.  And there may only be one chance to nip their scheme in the bud.

Does fortune favour the bold?  The marines are about to find out.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, read the Afterword, then purchase from the below links:

Amazon US.  Amazon UK.  Amazon Canada.  Amazon Austrilia.  Draft2Digital (multiple sellers, accessable through the linked page.)

Snippet – The Ancient Lie (The Unwritten Words II)

24 Sep

Prologue I

It was bitterly – bitterly – cold.

Alden Majuro, Patriarch of House Majuro, pulled his fur-lined coat tightly around him as he started the ascent to Ida.  Five years ago, the trip would have taken only a few hours – a day at most – and would have been accomplished in relative comfort.  His wealth, power and magic would have ensured a private coach on an iron dragon.  But now, it had taken nearly two weeks to make the trip, travelling over shattered roads and passing through burned-out villages, towns and cities fighting desperately to keep their independence from warring kings and princes.  It felt as if the Empire had never existed at all.  It felt …

Wrong, he thought.  It feels wrong.

It had been an interesting trip, for all the wrong reasons.  He hadn’t seen anything himself, but there had been stories … always stories.  Tales of miracles, of things beyond the limits of any known magic; tales of ghosts and resurrections and hundreds of other deeds he would have sworn blind were impossible.  The stories were spreading, radiating out from the forbidden zones.  It wouldn’t be long before they were everywhere.  He wondered, morbidly, if they’d already reached Ida.

Dark clouds, forebodingly pregnant with snow, hovered around the peaks as he made his way up the slippery road.  Ida had always been isolated, even though it had been part of the Empire.  The population had kept itself apart, relying on their mountains to protect them from their larger and more powerful neighbours.  Now … the weather was growing even worse, freezing bandit gangs and invading armies with a dispassion Alden could only admire.  It was possible to believe, as he reached the top and walked towards the gates, that Ida would remain civilised even as the rest of the world plunged into chaos.  The mountain folk knew better than to throw away everything they’d built at the behest of a king or rogue sorcerer.

The guards eyed him narrowly, then nodded.  “Her Majesty has sent for you,” the leader said, stiffly.  “Come with me.”

Alden nodded and followed the guard through winding streets, towards a palace that looked to have been hewn out of the mountain rock itself.  Snow started to fall, covering the dark buildings in a wintery haze.  The handful of people on the streets hurriedly sought shelter, suggesting there was worse to come.  Alden didn’t relax until they were inside the palace, where it was mercifully warm.  He stripped off his coat and changed into dry clothes with a sense of relief.  His outfit was so sodden that the washerwomen would have to use powerful spells to dry it.

He stepped into the next room and frowned.  A young woman was standing by the window, studying him.  She was … small, almost mousy.  Her dress was practically colourless.  She was the sort of woman he would have ignored, back at the Peerless School.  And yet … his eyes narrowed as he realised who she was.  Elaine, First of Her Name; Elaine, the Last Empress of the Golden Empire; Elaine …

Alden swallowed, suddenly unsure of himself.  He’d sent a message before he’d left, naturally, but there had been no time to wait for a reply.  Who knew how the Empress would react, when she laid eyes on him?  She’d refused to stay in the Golden City and rule, even though it was her birthright.  And they told strange tales about her … Alden knew, if she chose to be displeased at his intrusion, it might be the end of his lifeline.  She was the Empress!  If she wanted to kill him, she could.

He bowed, stiffly.  “Your Majesty.”

“I gave up the title.”  Elaine’s voice was soft, but there was a quiet strength in her tone that warned him not to underestimate her.  “It’s just Elaine, if you please.”

“As you please,” Alden said.  “I … I need to consult with you.”

“I read your letter.”  Elaine gave no hint of her feelings.  “You left out the specifics.”

Alden nodded. Reaching into his pouch, he produced the letters from Isabella.  “We received these tidings from the Summer Isle,” he said.  It occurred to him, too late, that Elaine and Isabella – his estranged sister – were practically contemporaries.  “There are strange … things on the island.  Or there were.”

Elaine took the letters and read them, quickly.  “Gods.  Entities.”

“Yes.”  Alden met her eyes.  “Very strange entities.”

“Yes.”  Elaine read the letters twice, skimming over the text to reread the important points.  “And clearly not part of the former canon.”

Alden’s eyes narrowed.  “They say you know everything,” he said.  “Do you know them?”

Elaine looked back at him, evenly.  “Do you know what happened to me?”

Alden shook his head.  There had been rumours, of course, but none of them had ever been substantiated.  And then the families had had worse problems to worry about.  Elaine … had been allowed to slip into obscurity.  If Alden were honest, at least with himself, he would have to concede that the families hadn’t wanted her to stick around.  The last thing they wanted was a ruler who had the power and will to make them behave.

Not that it matters, he thought, with a hint of the old bitterness.  Once, our word was law from one side of the continent to the other.  Now … we barely command one city.

“I absorbed all the knowledge in the Great Library,” Elaine said, slowly.  “Everything, from the mundane to the forbidden.  It’s all in here.”

She tapped the side of her head.  Alden stared, torn between astonishment and fear.  The Great Library had been sealed for the past five years, the wards denying entry to each and every person who tried to visit.  And the woman in front of him knew everything in the library?  Elaine was formidable, perhaps more formidable than she knew.  There was more than just books of magic in the library.  There were history books that had been banned and removed from circulation long ago.

“There are … hints … of something, right from the Dark Ages before the first Grand Sorcerer,” Elaine said.  “Stories of … things.  Of entities with striking power.  Of … the Empire, as it was in those days, practically devising a religion.  Of cutting and pasting elements into a single consistent theology …”

“Blasphemy,” Alden said.

“Is it?”  Elaine shrugged.  “It’s hard to tell these days, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”  Alden conceded the point without rancour.  He’d studied history in school.  There was very little on the era before the Empire, very little that could be substantiated.  His tutors had liked to pretend the Empire had always existed.   “And they’re seemingly linked to the forbidden zones.”

He sighed.  “What else can you tell me?”

“Very little.”  Elaine turned to peer out the window.  Snow brushed against the glass, dropping down to the streets below.  “Whatever truths there were, in the old texts, were removed long ago.  There were … just a list of warnings and instructions of what not to do.”

Alden stepped up beside her, watching the clouds growing darker.  “And you think those instructions were connected to the … gods?”

“Call them entities,” Elaine said, sharply.  “Once you start accepting them as gods, you will start worshipping them.”

“We do worship the gods,” Alden said.  “Don’t we?”

Elaine shrugged.  “How many of those gods were actually real?”

Her voice hardened.  “How many people liked the idea of an Emperor or an Empress until one actually turned up?”

“Touché.”  Alden shook his head.  “If these … entities … are real …”

“Then we may have a problem,” Elaine said.  “And there may not be much I can do to help you.”

Alden glanced at her, surprised.  “But you know everything!”

“I know the words written,” Elaine said.  “But the words unwritten?  Those, I don’t know.”

She shrugged.  “You may have had a wasted journey,” she cautioned.  “But stay a while.  Her Majesty wishes to speak with you.  And we may find something you can use, given time.”

“I hope you’re right.”  Alden looked back out the window.  He’d hoped Elaine would have answers for him.  Instead … she seemed to be as ignorant as himself.  “And if you’re not …?”

“Then we may find ourselves in the grip of greater powers,” Elaine said.  “And that never works out well for anyone.”

Prologue II

“I can’t help him, Goodwoman,” the Hedge Witch said.  “He’s dying.”

Goodwoman Charlotte barely heard his words as her son started to cough, again.  She had no idea what was wrong with him, but … he’d been coughing and vomiting for weeks, steadily growing weaker and weaker until he was on the verge of death.  Golan was five, the age where he should be starting in the fields with his father or learning a trade with his uncles.  Instead … she glared at the Hedge Witch, cursing the bastard under her breath.  He’d taken every last coin she’d been able to scrap up, from her extended family, but what had he done?  Nothing, damn him.  Her son was dying …

Golan coughed, harder this time.  There were flecks of blood on his lips.  Charlotte reached for him, drawing him into her arms as the coughing intensified.  Golan was dying … he’d only been hers for five years and he was dying.  Charlotte was a farmwife, from a farming community.  She knew death came early and often, to young babes only a few weeks and months old, but … she’d thought Golan had survived the most dangerous part of his childhood.  She’d dared to love him.  She’d told herself he was the most handsome boy in the world, a boy who would grow into a man who’d make her proud.  Instead …

The Hedge Witch was talking, but Charlotte barely heard him as her son coughed his life away.  Golan felt cold, too cold … she shuddered, helplessly, as he coughed one final time and fell still.  She didn’t need the Hedge Witch’s worthless spells and poultices to know her son was dead.  The man was babbling away about something, probably something to do with his payment … Charlotte barely cared.  Her son was dead.  Her son was dead … she knew she should send to the fields, to summon her husband for the funeral rites, but … it was hard, so hard, to care.  She wanted to die herself, if it meant her son came back to life.

Strong arms touched her, held her.  Others took the body from her arms, taking him to be washed before he was placed on the pyre.  Charlotte knew she should be the one to wash him – she’d brought Golan into the world, it was her duty to see him out – but she couldn’t bring herself to insist on her rights.  It would have been an admission, to herself if no one else, that it was hopeless, that her son was dead.  Golan had been so alive, his face practically glowing with life.  Everyone had loved him.  How could he be dead?

She was barely aware of anything until she stood in front of the funeral pyre, staring at what remained of her son.  Golan had been stripped, washed and dressed in a simple white shift, then placed on top of the wood.  Her husband stood next to her, holding her gently.  She wondered if his family had already started asking him to cast Charlotte aside, to find another wife … someone who might be more fertile, who might bear a healthy child.  There was no room for sentiment on the farm, no room for anything … she cursed them all, glaring past the pyre to the tiny shine beyond.  Golan had been a good boy.  What good were the gods, if they couldn’t save one child?

The priest started to talk, his words blurring together into a meaningless babble.  Golan was gone, yet … Charlotte refused to believe.  Her son couldn’t be dead.  She wanted to attack the priest, to tear him limb from limb for daring to suggest there might be something good in her son’s death.  How dare he?  The smiling, warmly dressed man … the man who collected tithes that went … where?  What good did he do?  Hatred washed through her breast, demanding release.  She wanted to strangle him with her bare hands.

“Hold.”

She looked up, astonished.  No one would interrupt a funeral, yet … someone had.  A tall man, wrapped in a ragged grey cloak that brushed against the ground.  Charlotte swallowed, hard.  A wandering preacher … they went from village, seeking alms and converts.  She’d been warned not to have anything to do with them, ever.  The priest had made it clear that the wanderers were not true preachers, yet … there was something about the man in front of her that drew her to him.  He felt more … real, as though he was larger than life.  She could feel his presence even when she kept her eyes decently lowered.

His voice throbbed with power.  It seemed to be for her and her alone.  “He is not dead.  His story is not yet told.  He can come back, if you believe.”

Charlotte stared at him, heedless of the gathered crowd.  “Bring him back!”

The priest took a step forward, raising his cane.  “Begone!”

“No.”  The preacher’s voice grew darker.  No, the world was getting darker.  “You begone.”

Lightning stabbed down, from a darkening sky.  The priest’s body lit up, then disintergrated in a flash of tearing white light.  Charlotte was rooted to the spot, unable to move.  The rest of the crowd scattered, strong men and women running in all directions, as if they were scared out of their minds.  They were brave, faced with something they understood, but this … Charlotte didn’t blame them for running.  The unknown was always terrifying.

“I can bring him back, if you embrace my lord,” the preacher said.  “Do you vow to devote yourself to him?”

“Yes.”  Charlotte didn’t have to think about it.  “Yes, yes, yes!”

The preacher placed his hand on Golan’s chest.  Charlotte watched, feeling something new blossom to life within her heart and soul.  She had never truly believed in the gods, not when they seemed to turn their backs on their people.  But now … hope became faith, became belief … she felt something surrounding her, blessing her.  Golan’s body twitched, his eyes opening …

“Mama?”

Charlotte reached for him, yanking him off the pyre.  He was alive!  Her son was alive!

“Embrace my lord,” the preacher said.  “And serve him for the rest of your days.”

“I will,” Charlotte promised.  Tears streamed down her face, No price was too high, for the return of her son.  The villagers were already returning, drawn by the miracle in her arms.  “I will.”

And she knew, whatever happened, that she would keep her promise. �

Chapter One

The tiny hut was empty, save for a single fire in the exact centre of the room.  It burned with an eerie flame, as if it were more magic than mundane.  Shadows flickered around the chamber, growing and lengthening as the flames threatened to die down.  It was easy to believe that something lurked within the shadows, that they were gateways to realms that existed beyond the reach of human perception.  There was a sense that anyone who walked into the shadows wouldn’t come out again.

Isabella, formerly of House Majuro, knelt on one side of the fire, staring into the flickering light.  She’d spent the last few months studying the old magics – if indeed they were magics – and yet they kept scaring her, as if they were something greater than she could comprehend.  She was a trained sorceress, yet … there was something about the old magics that worried her more than she dared admit.  Magic, her magic, was hers.  The old magics were something from before the dawn of recorded time, something … something borrowed.  She couldn’t escape the feeling that, one day, she’d have to pay a terrible price for what she’d learnt.

And my family may condemn me to death, if they find out, Isabella thought.  It was impossible to deny, even to herself, that she was studying forbidden rites.  She’d been taught what to watch for, back when she’d graduated from school.  They’ll say I’ve crossed a line.

She sighed, inwardly.  She wasn’t the person she’d been, for sure.  The powerful sorceress who’d deliberately broken the rules, ensuring she’d be kicked out of training and be disowned by her family, was gone.  So was the mercenary, who’d fought for Prince Reginald in his bid to lay claim to the Summer Isle.  It was hard to be sure, but … was she the sole survivor of Lord Robin’s Free Company?  So many were dead or missing, their fates unknown … it was possible.  And … she wondered, sometimes, if she’d recognise herself in the mirror.  If she looked.  She’d never been particularly vain – mercenaries couldn’t afford it – but she knew she was growing older.  Her dark hair was already tinged with white.

A wisp of wind crossed her face.  She looked up.  Mother Lembu knelt on the far side of the fire … she hadn’t been there a second ago.  Isabella was no longer surprised by such things, but … she shook her head.  Mother Lembu, Patron of Women, was something very inhuman, whatever aspect she wore.  The rules didn’t apply to her.  Isabella was still trying to work out what rules did.

She forced herself to look the entity in the face.  Mother Lembu was wearing her motherly aspect, a warm friendly appearance that reminded Isabella of her mother.  And yet, there was something about her appearance that was impossible to pin down.  It wasn’t that it was constantly shifting, although it never seemed to be quite constant.  It was that … she shook her head, slowly.  She rather suspected that, if someone else saw the entity, she would look like their mother, as if the entity was trying – deliberately or not – to manipulate their perceptions and feelings..  It made her wonder what lay behind the entity’s smile.

“Daughter.”  Mother Lembu’s voice was motherly too, just like Isabella’s mother.  It grated on Isabella’s very soul.  “You have studied well.”

“Thank you.”  Isabella knew it was true, even though there was something curiously slapdash about the rites and rituals she’d been taught.  The potions and poultices she’d made, at Mother Lembu’s direction, had nothing in common with the art she’d been taught at the Peerless School.  “You’re a good teacher.”

Mother Lembu looked charmed, as if she accepted it as her due.  Isabella wondered if she’d noticed the sarcasm and chosen to ignore it or, perhaps, missed it altogether.  It was hard to tell.  Mother Lembu didn’t seem to have the emotional range of a human, let alone the tutors who’d drilled brewing into her head.  They would have noticed the flattery instantly and given her detention.  Mother Lembu … wasn’t human.  Isabella reminded herself, again, that her tutor had little in common with her.

And she isn’t teaching me out of the goodness of her heart, she thought.  She’ll want something in return, sooner or later.

She settled back on her haunches, calming herself.  They were effectively trapped on the Summer Isle, at least until spring came.  Isabella had seen the towering waves, pounding the coastline and destroying any boat foolish enough to set sail.  Havant and the Red Monks had done something, something that ensured the storms were stronger and nastier than any in recorded history.  The cynical part of her mind noted they hadn’t had to work very hard.  The Summer Isle had always been isolated from the mainland.  Crossing safely was never easy, even during the summer months.

“There is symbolism in all things,” Mother Lembu said, once again.  “You must be aware of it at all times.”

Isabella nodded.  She’d heard it before, time and time again.  And yet, it was hard to believe.  She’d been taught rational magic, magic that worked the same way for everyone.  It was hard to wrap her head around spells that called on entities and petitioned them to do the work … and that the spells might not work, if the entity in question was having a bad day.  She knew spells – rituals, really – that could only be carried out under a full moon, or after a week of careful purification, or … she tried, hard, to keep her face under tight control.  She’d been warned about spells that required such odd precision.  They were almost always dangerous beyond belief.

And not without reason, she told herself.  The more she knew, the more she worried about what was happening on the mainland.  She wasn’t even sure her letter to Alden had reached its destination.  The effects are either very small, and thus hard to detect and counter, or terrifyingly big.

She listened, silently.  She’d commit everything to paper, once the lecture was over.  Mother Lembu hadn’t raised any objections to Isabella writing everything down, even though she had to know the notebooks would get Isabella into real trouble if the Inquisition – or what was left of it – ever found them.  Isabella suspected Mother Lembu expected the notebooks to go wandering, sooner or later, and fall into the hands of someone who’d try the rites without any real awareness of the dangers.  And if they did … there were times when Isabella seriously considered destroying the notebooks herself.  The spells she’d been taught took years to master.  The rites and rituals could be carried out by anyone.

Which is why they’re regarded with such horror, she thought, cynically.  The Grand Sorcerers didn’t want everyone practicing magic.

Mother Lembu caught her eye.  For a moment, she seemed to have three shadows.

“Are we paying attention?”

Isabella nodded, quickly.  Mother Lembu had three aspects: a maiden, a mother and a crone.  Isabella had never seen the crone, but … she’d heard stories.  She knew she never wanted to come face-to-face with the crone.  If the stories were true …

“You were explaining how certain rites call on different entities,” she said.  Thankfully, she’d long since mastered the art of mentally recording everything she was told for later consideration, even if she wasn’t paying precise attention.  It had come in handy at school … and, also, when her father had started yet another lecture on The Proper Duties to One’s Family.  “And how they must all be bribed for the ritual to go ahead.”

Placated, dear,” Mother Lembu said.  She gave Isabella a warm smile.  “The gods are not bribed.”

If you say so, Isabella thought.  They were bribed, as far as she could tell.  Some entities wanted specific offerings, others seemed to be happy with whatever they were given.  And they bestowed their blessings in response.  Who is actually in charge?

She considered the question as Mother Lembu resumed her lecture, outlining the precise gifts that must be offered to certain entities and the meaning behind them.  Who had the power?  The shopkeeper, who had the food someone wanted to buy, or the customer, who had the money the shopkeeper wanted?  Or was it a mutually beneficial relationship?  She understood why someone might want to curry favour with the gods … entities, she corrected herself sharply.  But what did the entities get out of it?  How did they benefit?  Or were they just slaves to the handful who knew how to call on them?

“So,” Mother Lembu said.  She clapped her hands, as if she knew Isabella’s conscious mind hadn’t been paying attention.  “Have we studied enough?”

“Yes, Mother,” Isabella said.  She hastily reviewed what she’d been told, in case Mother Lembu wanted to quiz her.  “I think that’s enough for the day.”

“You need some rest,” Mother Lembu agreed.  Her voice dropped.  She gave Isabella a sly wink.  “And your young man in your bed.”

Isabella blushed, furiously.  Reginald – Crown Prince Reginald of Andalusia – had asked her to marry him, after the final battle with Havant and the entity behind him.  She wasn’t sure how she felt about it.  She liked him – she loved him, in some ways – but she didn’t think she wanted to live the life of a queen.  Queen Carline, Reginald’s mother, had died giving birth; Queen Emetine, wife and murderer of King Edwin of the Summer Isle, had gone mad.  The entities probably hadn’t helped, Isabella was sure.  She’d heard enough of the queen’s ranting to know she’d been sold a bill of goods.

“He’s gone to Racal’s Bay,” she said, stiffly.  She didn’t want to have that conversation, not with an entity who reminded her so strongly of her mother.  Her mother … these days, her mother would probably approve of Reginald as a prospective husband.  It wasn’t as if there were many sorcerers left.  “And we haven’t decided yet …”

“Remember what I taught you,” Mother Lembu said.  “You can use him to perform rites.”

“I know.” Isabella felt her blush deepen.  “But I won’t ask him to do it.”

“You should.”  Mother Lembu shrugged.  “You’ll need it.”

Isabella looked up, into the entity’s eyes.  “Is that true?”

“Yes,” Mother Lembu said.

“Oh.”  Isabella wasn’t sure what to make of it.  Predicting the future was yet another sign of forbidden arts … although, her tutors had admitted dryly, most people ran into trouble because they predicted the future unsuccessfully.  And yet … nothing she’d been taught, in the Peerless School, had offered any real hope of predicting the future.  Sure, she could say that someone would be hexed in the very near future – and then hex him herself – but it wasn’t real.  “How do you know?”

Mother Lembu gave her an enigmatic smile.  “There are layers you have yet to reach, my dear.”

I’m sure there are, Isabella thought.  Her lessons had been detailed, but … she was starting to think that she was gaining a generalist education.  There were tricks that were well beyond her, hints of rituals that Mother Lembu had never taught her to perform.  And just what are you keeping from me?

“I look forward to reaching them,” she said, out loud.  She wasn’t sure that was true.  “Can you teach me how to predict the future?”

“Maybe.”  Mother Lembu’s smile deepened, until it became the expression one might expect to see on a prowling tiger.  It was hard to look into her face without feeling cold.  “When you’re ready.”

“Ready to learn?”  Isabella asked.  “Or ready to pay the price?”

Mother Lembu merely smiled.  “You don’t have to leave now.  Why don’t you ask for something from me?”

Isabella frowned, aware that – once again – the rules had changed.  Mother Lembu wanted something, but what?  Permission to do something?  Or … just a test, to see what Isabella would do?  What she’d ask for, given the chance?  Or … or what?  Isabella gritted her teeth in frustration.  She knew how to play the game, back home.  She knew the rules and the price for breaking them.  Here … she wasn’t so sure.  The slightest mistake could condemn her to an eternity of suffering.

She looked back into the fire.  The flames seemed to reach towards her.  “What should I ask for?”

“What should  you ask for?”  Mother Lembu seemed amused.  “Nothing may be known until it is spoken.”

Isabella lifted her eyes.  “You keep saying that.”

“And it’s always true,” Mother Lembu said.

For you, Isabella thought.  But for me?

She took a breath.  “Answer me a question,” she said, with scant hope the question would be answered.  “Where do you come from?  All of you.”

Mother Lembu looked displeased.  It was … it was a very motherly kind of displeasure, the kind of displeasure that suggested one had disappointed one’s parents beyond all hope of redemption.  Isabella felt a pang – a sense of dismay, an urge to throw herself on her knees and beg forgiveness – that nearly overwhelmed her.  If she hadn’t been so familiar with parental disappointment, if she hadn’t been so used to coping with her father’s anger and her mother’s tears, it would have overwhelmed her.  Even so, it was a near-run thing.

“I would ask you to ask a different question,” Mother Lembu said.  Her voice was so even Isabella knew she was angry.  “But I know you will not.”

Because you’ve seen the future, Isabella asked herself, or because you know me?

She frowned, reminding herself – once again – that overestimating someone’s powers and abilities could be as dangerous as underestimating them.  It was easy to work oneself into a paralysis born of self-doubt, of fear that one’s opponent was simply too powerful and too capable to stop.  She’d learnt the hard way that – sometimes – those who were too impressed with their own abilities had feet of clay, that they could be brought down through a careful use of magic and skill.  And that others, boastful braggarts who got on her nerves, had a great deal to boast about.

“We were born in the light, children of the Great Old Ones and Sons and Daughters of Mankind,” Mother Lembu said.  “They were the raging storm.  We were the passion and the glory and the everything.  We were born of their desire to be something more, shaped by their determination to remain unchanged for an endless eternity.  And we came to take their place.  We caged them, imprisoned them, and ruled for eternity.

“And then eternity came to an end.”

“Eternity doesn’t end, by definition,” Isabella said, tartly.  She suspected Mother Lembu had to tell the truth, but … there was nothing stopping her from telling the truth in a manner that made it impossible to understand.  Or simply mislead her.  “What happened?”

Mother Lembu waved her hand.  The fire died.  The chamber was plunged into darkness.  Isabella sensed … things, crawling closer and closer until they were practically breathing down the back of her neck.  She clenched her fists, ready to lash out.  The sense of something behind her, not quite touching her, was overwhelming.  The only thing that kept her from throwing a punch was the grim certainty that it might be the last thing she ever did.

“The Great Old Ones were big.”  Mother Lembu’s voice echoed in the darkness.  “This world is a fragile structure.  It was never meant to bear their presence.  Mankind was never designed to see them.  Madness always followed in their wake.  And then we were born, children of the Great Old Ones and Mankind alike.  We fought the Great Old Ones.  We caged them.  We banished them.  And then we were banished too.”

Her voice rose.  “We were betrayed.”

Thunder cracked.  The air seemed to grow very hot, just for a second.  Isabella felt something all around her, pressing down on her.  She heard a creaking sound, then … the air cleared.  She opened her eyes, without ever being quite sure when she’d closed them.  The door was open.  Light was streaming though.  And Mother Lembu was gone.

She sat there for a long moment, gathering herself.  She’d been in hundreds of fights, physical and magical, but … this was different.   She had never felt so vulnerable, not even when she’d picked a fight with an older student at school.  There, at least, there had been limits.  She could lose, but she couldn’t die.  Here … she knew she was confronting powers that were older than her entire family, powers that played by rules she didn’t even begin to understand.  Her training insisted there would be an underlying logic, somewhere.  She just had to find it.  But everything she’d seen in the last few months suggested there was no underlying logic.

Perhaps the lack of logic is, in itself, a form of logic, she thought, as she staggered to her feet and brushed down her trousers.  The system is logically illogical.

She snorted at the thought, then took one last look around the chamber and walked out the door.  The building was a tiny stone shack, a short distance outside the city’s walls.  Mother Lembu had insisted on holding their lessons there, even though she would have been welcome in Allenstown itself.  Isabella had no idea why, but she suspected it was something to do with territory.  She and Reginald had killed the entity who’d nearly destroyed the city, yet … Isabella shrugged.  She had a feeling she should be relieved.  Mother Lembu was not human.  Better to keep her at a distance.

But that might not be possible, she mused.  The cold air brushed against her skin as she headed back to the gates.  The world isn’t what it was.  And the entities may be here to stay.   /

Specific Story/Series Updates

23 Sep

Specific Story/Series Updates

Seeing people keep asking …

Mirror Image

I’ve just done the second set of edits.  There were a couple of plot holes that needed filled and a scene needed expansion, so there will probably be a third set before the book gets published.  And we need a cover. 

SIM in General

Post Mirror Image, there will be four-five more books that will hopefully wrap up the series.  I do have ideas for future books, with or without Emily herself, but they’re a long-term project at the moment.

Favour The Bold

Being edited.  I hope to have it published in eBook in a week or so.

The Empire’s Corps in General

I’ve not decided if I want to write another side story between Favour the Bold and Knife Edge yet.  The current concept is Bread and Circuses, a look at socialism, but the plot hasn’t gelled yet.  I’m still trying to think of more side story concepts … any ideas?

Angel in the Whirlwind

Debt of Honor and Debt of Loyalty have been completed, but publication has been delayed because I was ill.  I’m not sure when DOH will be out.  I hope to write Debt of War by the end of the year.

A Learning Experience

I intend to start writing Their Last Full Measure in late October.

Musings on the Campbell Awards Kerfuffle

20 Sep

As per usual, please keep disagreements (and there will be some) calm and reasonable.

I’ve got a habit of trying to avoid jumping to conclusions, posting commentary and generally taking the first reports too seriously, whatever happens, because the first reports are – at best – often lacking in context.  I find that waiting often adds context, allowing me to see a fuller picture of what actually happened and, slightly less importantly, lets me see what other people (for or against) have to say about it.  These days, you just can’t trust anyone to present a full picture in the expectations you’ll make up your own mind.  People have a nasty habit, now, of trying to serve as ‘thought leaders’ rather than trusting their readers.

In this case, events moved on more than I had anticipated, although I suppose I should have expected that.  The Campbell Awards have been renamed, with the response ranging from ‘about time’ to ‘yet another craven surrender to the social-justice bully mob.’  The idea of renaming the Hugo Award has been ruled out (for the moment).  Another award has been renamed.  And there is, as always, much bad feeling on both sides. 

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

I have never (knowingly) met Jeannette Ng.  I have never read any of her books.  I don’t have any real feelings, positive or negative, for her.  That said, I do think it’s rather cheeky to accept the award, on one hand, while bashing the award’s namesake on the other.  It would have made a much greater impression on me, I admit, if she had declined the award because she didn’t care for its namesake.  Instead, she seems to have wanted to have her cake and eat it too. 

Personally, if I knew the award’s namesake (who died eleven years before I was born and therefore couldn’t have voted for or against me) would have hated the idea of me winning the award for things beyond my control, I might have indulged in a minor gloat.  But that would have been pointless.  The people who voted for or against me (and, in the real world, for or against Jeannette Ng), were not chosen or directly influenced by Campbell.  The award has not only outlasted him, it has outgrown him.

It is a fundamental fact of history that all of the greats, men and women alike, have feet of clay.  We now know that JFK and Martin Luther King were womanisers.  We now know that Nelson Mandela flirted with communism.  We now know that Abraham Lincoln had some repressive instincts, that George Washington owned slaves, that Bonnie Prince Charlie was a drunkard and a wife-beater, that … I could go on and on.  Go back a handful of years and you’ll discover that people who were ‘woke’ for their era are nothing of the sort for us.  But does this mean that we should reject what they did?  The greatest people of history are not weighed down by their sins.  They manage to rise above them.

John Campbell was not, even in the view of some of his contemporaries, a very nice man.  He seems to have been one of those people who was either loved or hated, with very little middle ground.  (I never met him).  By modern standards (and even by some contemporary standards) he was a racist.  He was a sexist.  He may have been a fascist.  (I’m reluctant to say anything definite about that because ‘fascist’ is one of those words that has lost a great deal of meaning through overuse.)  This is not easy to deny.  I’ve read a handful of his essays and some of them made me uncomfortable.  But then, Campbell would hardly be the only writer to make me uncomfortable (and some of them are contemporary writers.) 

At the same time, John Campbell was also one of the founding fathers of science-fiction.  It was Campbell who recognised the talents of people like Heinlein, Asimov and many others.  It was Campbell who gave them a platform and a chance to make their names.  Without Campbell, would we have Heinlein, Asimov, et al?  Would we have a community that has – as I said above – outgrown its founders?  Would science-fiction as we know it today even exist? 

There seems to be an unspoken and thus unchallenged assumption amongst many of the ‘erase Campbell from history’ commenters that a community without Campbell would have embraced a golden age of ‘woke’ science-fiction, in which authors of colour and gender would have been appreciated for their talents instead of being unfairly excluded.  But is that actually true?  The history of racism and race relations in the United States is a great deal more complex than such assessments suggest.  Real-life Benny Russell characters faced more problems than just a single bigoted editor.  Campbell believed that their work wouldn’t sell and he might have been right – I say might because I don’t know.  Campbell’s job was not to purchase works merely on their merits, but purchase works that would sell.  Publishing a story that might not, for whatever reason, sell would be a misstep, one Campbell might not be able to afford.  Could he take the risk?

This was more pervasive than one might expect.  Heinlein, who was pretty much the figure in science-fiction in his later years, had to use a number of tricks to obscure his early non-white characters.  Mr. Kiku from The Star Beast is very clearly non-American, for example; Rod Walker of Tunnel in the Sky is black, but written in a way that allowed Heinlein to claim plausible deniability if this blew up in his face.  (He did this so well that his editor raised suspicions of an interracial romance (miscegenation, in the parlance of the times).  And while one may make sharp remarks about Sixth Column (written by Heinlein, following a plot heavily influenced by Campbell), it should be borne in mind that the crimes of the Pan-Asians of the novel pale in comparison to the real-life crimes of Imperial Japan.

Campbell was not perfect.  Far from it.  But his contribution to the field cannot be denied.  It is certainly far in excess of the contributions made by his detractors.  And yes, I feel we should not forget the good he did, as well as the bad.

A number of commenters have claimed that POC authors feel uncomfortable accepting awards named for people who would have rejected them, for publication, on the grounds of skin colour.  I don’t know if this is true.  (Jeannette Ng accepted the award.)  I do know that I don’t feel that way.  The award has outgrown its namesake. 

To put this in some context, consider this.  The Order of the Garter is among the most prestigious honours Britain can bestow.  And yet, it was established by Edward III, who believed in a number of things I find offensive.  He believed in the divine right of kings, England’s (i.e. his) right to rule France, strict social hierarchy and many other things I don’t like.  And he wouldn’t have liked me either.  A middle-class author with ideas above his station, daring to criticize the divine right of monarchs?  Off with his head! 

But you know what?  If I was offered an Order of the Garter, which isn’t likely to happen, I wouldn’t say no. 

I don’t think there’s a single person writing, these days, who will not be judged harshly in the future.  Depending on how things go, I’m sure there will be reviewers in 2100 who’ll sneer at me for being married when everyone knows marriage is an outdated social construct … or, even worse, reviewers who will accuse me of miscegenation.  Judge not, least you be judged, is not always good advice … but it is in this case.

But there’s a second major issue that should also be taken into account.

I am a nerd.  Like most nerds, I was nerd-shamed at school.  I was bullied and mocked and generally humiliated for being a nerd.  And I was, for most of my teenage years, utterly alone.  There were no other book-readers in that hellhole, the comic-readers weren’t inclined to befriend me and, while there were a couple of other Star Trek/Babylon 5 fans, they weren’t inclined to befriend me either.  (The only nerd-show that was genuinely popular was The X-Files.)  I spent longer than I want to think about being mocked for reading, as if there was something wrong with reading.  That sort of treatment – which appears to be common for nerds – leaves scars.  It makes it hard to empathise with others who have their own problems, but – to us – appear to have it all their own way.

And so we cling to our nerdy status because it is all we have.  Heinlein, Asimov and Campbell – yes, even Campbell – are part of our community.  To erase them is to erase our history.  And we see that as a direct attack on us, particularly when it is strikingly clear that the attackers have either missed the point of the story (The Cold Equations is rather more than a “parable about the foolishness of women and the role of men in guiding them to accept the cold, hard facts of life”) or taken it out of context. 

The reformers, call them whatever you like, say they are improving science-fiction, that they’re making it more inclusive.  But others – nerds like me – see it as the popular kids imposing their will on the social outcasts.  We hate and resent it, because it brings back memories of being bullied for being nerds.  And, on some level, we don’t see it as much-needed reform.  We see it as nothing more than an excuse for bullying.

To put this in some (more) context, there was – at one of my schools – something called gay-bashing.  The bullies would beat up kids they believed to be gay, on the grounds that they were gay.  I don’t believe that most of them knew what being ‘gay’ actually meant – our sex education was very poor – and, to be best of my knowledge, no one at that school was actually gay.  (And if they were, I would not have blamed them for remaining in the closet and keeping the door firmly closed.)  The gay-bashers didn’t care.  It was just an excuse to beat up on people and feel righteous while doing it.

I have the same feeling, sometimes, whenever someone pokes their head into my community and insists that something must change, immediately.  As a mature adult, I can understand that people might reasonably argue for renaming the award, but the bit of me that was traumatised by endless bullying makes it hard to believe.  People who demand an immediate response make it impossible to calm down and consider their reasoning logically.  I’ve found that anyone who pushes for immediate action does not have my best interests in mind. 

I’m not the first person to compare this to schoolyard bullying.  I will not be the last.

There may have been a case for renaming the Campbell Award.  But it should not have been done now, not when a sizable percentage of fandom would draw the wrong lesson from the kerfuffle.  From what I’ve heard, there are people who argue that pressure campaigns work; they should do more of them.  And, on the other side, there are people who are even more determined to resist next time, even if they’re dying on a hill no rational person wants to die on. 

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone … and, looking back from a (relatively) short space of time, there is no one who was perfectly innocent at the time, but – now – is a criminal beyond redemption.  Standards change, people change; can you, can anyone, look me in the eye and say they will never be accused of being ‘un-woke?’  That, ten years from now, they will be attacked for something – in or out of context – that is no longer acceptable.  It is terrifyingly easy to look at a handful of modern-day writers and craft narratives that bash them, that make them out to be things they’re not … is there anyone, realistically, who wants a world where this is a thing? 

Frankly, we – the community – have far more important things to worry about.  The Hugo Voters (everyone who votes, from Sad and Rabid Puppies to SMOFs) are a tiny percentage of science-fiction and fantasy fans.  I don’t believe they’re even 1% of fandom.  The more people go on about diversity and inclusion, the more harm they do to diversity and inclusion … because the people pushing diversity and inclusion don’t really grok humans.  Conventions are becoming less friendly to fans and more commercialised, people are being hammered and blacklisted and disinvited for daring to disagree with the ‘woke’ … I think, I really think, that we shouldn’t be tearing ourselves apart and beating each other up …

After all, if there’s one lesson every nerd learns at school, it is that there is always someone else willing to do it.

Review: Kingdom of Souls

20 Sep

  • Rena Barron

Kingdom of Souls is one of those books that is quite difficult to review.

It was actually mentioned to me by someone who read The Zero Blessing, with a suggestion that Rena Barron copied my work. That isn’t true. Save for skin colour and (apparent) powerlessness, Caitlyn and Arrah – the heroine of Kingdom of Souls – have very little in common. They come from different worlds, have different backgrounds, different magics … in short, they’re not the same.

Kingdom of Souls is set in a very African setting, with elements drawn from all over north and west Africa. The heroine comes from a line of witch doctors, powerful magic users. But she fails at magic, fails to call upon the ancestors and can’t even cast the simplest spell. Her mother, who is terribly abusive, is incredibly disappointed in her. Many of her peers openly mock her. However, when children in the kingdom begin to disappear, Arrah undergoes the dangerous and scorned process of selling years of her life for magic. This leads her to discover the sinister truth behind the missing children, a deadly plot for revenge and – ultimately – that she is all that stands between her world and utter destruction.

There’s a lot I liked about the book. Arrah does not give up, even when the odds are stacked against her. She has no qualms about fighting bullies, even bullies with magic; later, when forced into semi-servitude, she finds loopholes that allow her to fight back and eventually break free. She has friends and a warm relationship with a boy who is practically her boyfriend, although this is stained – later on – when he’s tricked into having sex with the villain. Arrah is willing to take the ultimate risk, even to cut herself off from her community, to safeguard those she loves.

The book is also a grim warning of just how far someone can go in their quest for revenge. The villain – Arrah’s mother is the first villain of the book, although she’s not the last – is ready to tear down just about everything, including her daughters, to take her revenge. Perhaps she has reason, Arrah thinks as much. It doesn’t excuse everything she does and Arrah makes no bones about it. What seems, at first, to be a simple story becomes something greater along the way.

At the same time, however, there are two weaknesses. The background is stunning, but it is often obscure. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who, what’s what and a lot of other details you need to follow in order to read the book. Like most ‘diverse’ books, we don’t have an instinctive understanding of the setting and need more explaining; the book could have benefited from a detailed outline of the setting, perhaps as an appendix where it wouldn’t have impeded the storytelling.

A more serious problem is that the story seems to swing around a lot, as if the author wasn’t sure where she intended to go before settling on a course. Things change, oddly; it starts with Arrah making a bargain for power, then finding herself battling her mother and an entity who may be the worst. May. Questioning everything you’re told is a theme in the book. Really, I expected it to stick with Arrah making the bargain, discovering the downsides, probably being kicked out for it and, finally, coming back in glory. There’s probably a story there, if someone wants to do it.

Overall, Kingdom of Souls reminds me of Children of Blood and Bone, although the storylines are very different. In some ways, the setting is better. In others, it’s a little too different. In both cases, however, the stories are YA; suitable for teenagers, less suitable for older and younger readers.

To Slip The Surly Bonds …

17 Sep

I have a short story in To Slip The Surly Bonds, an air-theamed collection of alternate history short stories. Check it out: USUKCANAUS