Archive | April, 2013

Signed Copies of The Royal Sorceress and Bookworm

25 Apr

Hi, everyone

I’ve just confirmed that I will be going back to the UK in July for a short visit with the British half of my family. I’m actually looking forward to it – I can’t wait to see my family again.

However, it also offers me a chance to sign copies of both The Royal Sorceress and Bookworm for my fans.

It will cost £11 to receive a signed copy if you live in the UK (including postage and packing.) I don’t (yet) know the cost to ship to the US or Europe, but I suspect that the total cost will be at least £15.

What I would like to do is collect the money (through PayPal. ideally) by mid-June, have copies sent to my UK address by early July, allowing me to sign and send out the books by the 12th July. I may be able to make alternate arrangements through Amazon payments if necessary, but I’m reluctant to do that because it might easily cause confusion.

If you’re interested, drop me an email to and I’ll get back in touch with you when I’m organised (hopefully by the end of May.) Please write the postage address carefully, particularly if you live outside the UK. (I’ve already been stung once.)



Reflections Upon Defeat: The Disaster in Iraq

17 Apr

[My second political post. Comments welcome.]

It is now more than a decade since American and British forces surged across the Iraq-Kuwait border and invaded Iraq. American forces advanced on Baghdad, capturing the city within three weeks, while British forces concentrated on securing Southern Iraq and Basra. It was a spectacularly successful military campaign that laid the groundwork for the disaster the occupation would become. There was no plan, a colossal shortage of manpower and resources – and a general lack of awareness of Iraqi realities.

The United States staggered under the early disasters – and adapted, reacted and overcame. President Bush held his nerve, dispatched reinforcements (in what became known as the ‘Surge) and allowed the US to leave with honour. It was a far from perfect victory, but it was a victory. Iraq now has hope, which is more than could be said of the country while Saddam held power.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of British forces.

As a British citizen, I shall be blunt. We were lied to.

I’m not talking about the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the other intelligence mistakes made prior to the invasion. Given Saddam’s history, there was little ground for believing his assertions that he had disposed of all his WMD; Bush and Blair cannot be faulted for refusing to believe a man who had denied having weapons so many times before. Those mistakes were understandable.

What was less understandable – or acceptable – was the spin used by the British Government and senior military officers to convince us that all was well in Basra, Iraq.

At the dawn of the century, there was good reason to be proud of our military accomplishments. We had fought and won the only successful counter-insurgency campaign of the Cold War (France and America won on the battlefield, but lost at the negotiating table; the USSR couldn’t even claim that much of a victory) and we had also fought and won the most successful small war (the Falklands). We told ourselves that we had a mastery that more than made up for the sheer preponderance of firepower that the Americans or the Soviet Union brought to the battlefield.

Iraq proved that belief to be nothing more than conceit.

Let me be clear on this. Throughout the civilised world – and the Middle East – British military prestige has fallen to an all-time low. And the reason for this is our outright failure in Iraq. Right now, it would be difficult to uphold our military commitments, let alone take part in another coalition war. This is a disaster of the first magnitude.

Iraq was a British defeat on a scale unseen since Yorktown or Saratoga – or even Singapore. Like those pivotal battles, Iraq was fought by officers more intent on politics than common sense, by politicians more concerned about their legacy than about the practicalities of the campaign. Just because we no longer have an empire to defend is no reason not to worry about the consequences of such a disaster. Instead, the British Government seems intent on sweeping it all under the rug.

No one is fooled – except, perhaps, the British population.

But why did this happen?

The principle answer, I fear, lies in the character of Tony Blair (and, to some extent, Gordon Brown.) Blair liked to be liked; more than that, he wanted to strut his stuff on a worldwide scale. He was possessed by a narcissistic belief that how you look is more important than what you actually do – and, to some extent, such a belief prepared him well for politics. The real world, however, is much less easy to impress. Merely decreeing that something must be done is not the same as actually doing it.

[Americans may wish to note – and worry – that Barrack Obama shares many of Blair’s personality traits.]

This leads to another problem shared by those with narcissistic tendencies; a lack of focus, concentration and long-term thinking. The narcissists pick up something, play with it for a little while and then put it down again, forgetting why they were interested in the first place as soon as it is no longer useful to them. This is a dangerous belief in any circumstances, but worst of all when fighting a war. When the war made Blair look bad, he did his best to spin it in his favour or simply pretend that it was not happening. In essence, Blair was perhaps the worst war leader Britain had had since Lord North, who lost the American colonies. He certainly failed to live up to the standards of Churchill, Thatcher or even Chamberlain.

9/11 was a godsend to Blair (and to some of his administration) as it allowed him to push himself into the spotlight. He was the first world leader to visit Washington and the first to pledge his support. When Bush planned to invade Iraq, Blair effectively wrote him a black cheque, obtaining – in return – a pledge to go to the UN first. This might have seemed good press, but it was lousy politics; anyone with a reasonable background in geopolitics should have known better than to expect the UN to provide any actual support for the invasion. In short, Blair failed to get anything concrete in return for his support.

The political storm this provoked led directly to the second major error of the campaign; the shortage of actual planning. There was no clear plan (American or British) for the occupation of Iraq (matters were complicated by the fact that the original invasion plans called for the British to attack south from Turkey and occupy the Iraqi north) and no realisation that the plans would actually be necessary. In effect, British troops jumped into terra incognita. This was a preventable mistake which would cast baleful shadows over the entire campaign.

Geography dictates the course of wars. When considering an insurgency (or even a peaceful occupation) that geography includes the population of the combat zone. Their attitudes are paramount, particularly when one isn’t hell-bent on exterminating the locals. In this case, there were three major strikes against the occupation forces from day zero. Basra had been abandoned by the allies in 1991 (they rose up against Saddam, believing the promises that they would receive support from the West, but no support materialised and they were crushed) and there was a long, difficult-to-patrol border between Iraq and Iran. Oh, and perhaps most importantly of all, Iran’s population were Shia … just like most of the population of Basra.

What this meant, in practical terms, was simple. Iran had considerable advantages when it came to manipulating the locals, who were disinclined to trust the West … and wanted to claim their democratic right, the rule of Iraq. Any occupation force should have taken this into account from the start.

We boasted endlessly about our successes in Ireland and Malaya. What we ignored was the fundamental building blocks of our successes, building blocks that didn’t exist in Iraq. In both Ireland and Malaya, we had access to thousands of supporters, a working Civil Service and much else that gave us an advantage. In Iraq, there were few supporters (a problem that became worse as it became clear that we couldn’t protect them) and no working bureaucracy we could use to our advantage. The shortage of interpreters alone was disastrous.

You may note that one trait of the narcissistic personality is to endlessly boast about his past accomplishments. We boasted about our successes without actually bothering to learn from them. I suppose it was easier to do that than actually think.

The next major error came directly from the shortage of understanding of just what Iraq was actually like. The troop levels in Basra were never enough to dominate the area and provide security for the population. British troops were expected to patrol the cities, the nearby towns and the border, all the while helping the locals to reconstruct their country. There were, quite simply, nowhere near enough troops on the ground to do all that, even in a relatively peaceful country. And Iraq was nowhere near peaceful. What peace there was in Basra came because British troops didn’t control it in reality.

Put bluntly, when inserting yourself into any problem, there is a process we may as well call the ‘buy-in.’ If you share a flat with someone, to use a simple example, you have no say in what goes on unless you pay the rent. The British (and American, to some extent) buy-in to Iraq was nowhere near great enough to shape events on the ground to our satisfaction. What actually happened was the creation of a shadow government that was opposed to us, backed by Iran and eventually bent on taking control of the entire country. Our attempts to create civil government in Iraq merely added to this government’s power.

This problem was further complicated by the political dimension. Iraq’s provisional government needed the support of the Shia in the south. This meant that any British attempt to curb the growth of ‘rogue’ militia units would be curtailed by the provisional government or the US. The British might prune back a militia that stuck its head out too far, but other than that they were allowed to grow almost unopposed. In effect, the city was handed over to a gang of murderers who could give lessons to the Taliban in brutality.

British Generals failed their troops. Despite countless examples of stunning bravery from British forces, there was no concentrated attempt to demand additional troops and resources from Britain. British equipment was not up to acceptable standards for large parts of the campaign, British manpower was nowhere near enough to handle the tasks it was expected to do and there was absolutely no trust (with good reason) between British troops and their Iraqi counterparts.

Why did this happen? In short, the Generals had become uniformed politicians, telling political leaders what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear. They were content to accept a series of increasingly disastrous politically-motivated decisions rather than stand up for the men and women under their command. Maybe this isn’t surprising – opposing one’s boss is never good for the career – but in warfare it costs lives. I have no doubt that the Generals could have earned a living by writing books on the war. And maybe then they could have held their heads high.

Churchill had Brooke, who had no hesitation in telling the PM when one of his ideas was dotty. Who did Blair have?

A decisive politician would have accepted that there were two choices. The British could ante up, send more troops to Basra, tell the provisional government to go to hell and do whatever was necessary to take control of the city. Or the British could accept defeat and withdraw, cutting their losses. Blair chose a third option; he temporised, allowing British policy to drift without any steering at all. The net result was that Britain ended up with the worst of both worlds; a failure to solve any of the major problems which would, eventually, explode in the country’s face. Blair’s refusal to admit defeat meant that British heroism was effectively wasted.

The crowning moment in the ‘victorious’ war came when the Iraqi Government finally made the decision that they could no longer tolerate the situation in Basra. It was the New Iraqi Army, aided by the Americans, that crushed the militias in Basra, not the British Army. We knew little about it until the operation was underway, which left the spin-doctors struggling to work the event to our advantage. By then, the pretence had worn thin. No one outside the UK was inclined to believe that we hadn’t been defeated. It should not have surprised anyone that we were ordered out of the country in 2008. Why should they have been grateful for our efforts?

President Bush, by ordering the Surge, showed that he was willing to pay a high price to shape Iraq’s future. The American military engaged in brutal self-criticism and emerged capable of taking on the insurgents and besting them at their own game. American industry produced new vehicles and weapons designed for urban combat.

We did none of those things.

Indeed, having failed to learn and apply the lessons from our counter-insurgency past, we have failed to learn and apply the lessons from Iraq. Most of the mistakes we made there have been repeated in Afghanistan. They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing time and time again, expecting a different result each time. What, then, is rotten in the state of Britain?

The failure in Iraq was a political and military failure, caused by the shortcomings of our political and military leaders. If we are to avoid yet another military disaster, we must examine the underlying factors that caused our defeat and deal with them. The blunt truth is simple – we defeated ourselves in Iraq. Now, we have to pick up the pieces and learn.

I had hoped that the Coalition government would do better than Labour at managing our military. Instead, we have a series of even higher cuts – and still more commitments to foreign wars. We have cut troops, we have cut aircraft, we have cut ships … this position is unsustainable. Don’t they know there’s a war on?

It is typical to blame Tony Blair for getting us involved with the war on terror. That is absolute nonsense, even for those of us who detest the man. The terrorists are motivated by hatred and fear of the West – hatred for the freedoms we consider our due, fear for the fact that their fellows will be attracted to the West. We could have stayed out of the war entirely and refused to lift a finger to aid the US after 9/11 and we would still be targets. There is no way we can appease such a foe. We have to fight.

But we have worn down the forces we need to fight.

Something is going to break. And it is going to cost lives.

Additional Reading

A War of Choice: Honour, Hubris and Sacrifice: The British in Iraq – Jack Fairweather

Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan – Frank Ledwidge

Ministry of Defeat: The British War in Iraq 2003-2009 – Richard North

Background: Knife Edge`

12 Apr

I started writing this out as background.  Comments welcome.

Course of the War


Mekong forces invade Epsilon, a colony world at the edge of human space. The large majority of the colonists are killed and the remainder taken prisoner. A human long-range scout jumps into the system, realises what is wrong and jumps out again before the aliens can stop it. The war has begun.


Mekong forces obliterate the Thyme asteroid mining colony. There are no known survivors.


Mekong forces bombard Ruth’s World, cracking the atmospheric domes. There are no known survivors.


The scout ship from Epsilon reaches Earth and reports to the UN. A state of emergency is declared by all major powers; the UN Emergency Committee is summoned and ordered to lay plans for joint human operations against this new foe. Almost all human powers agree to join the new alliance. Admiral Yang (China) is placed in command of the Multinational Force. Unsurprisingly, this process doesn’t go very smoothly.


The news gets out on Earth, causing major panic. Luckily, world governments have had time to lay plans for civil unrest and are able to maintain control. Many countries call for an emergency draft, as well as keeping military forces in the solar system.

The Multinational Strategy Board hears from the scoutships that were dispatched to other colonies along the edge of human space. They conclude that the aliens are slicing inward, aiming directly at humanity’s older settlements. New Russia, the main Russian-ethnic world, is determined to be the most likely target. Once New Russia has fallen, the aliens (as yet unidentified) will be in a good position to attack Earth itself and fragment the human race.

Several voices within the UN call for peace talks with the aliens. The MNF CO reluctantly agrees to dispatch diplomatic ships in the hopes of finding a peaceful settlement. However, he cautions that the aliens have shown no interest in talks.


After prolonged diplomatic wrangling, it is decided to dispatch several squadrons from the MNF (mainly American, European and Russian) to New Russia to bolster the defences. In addition, recon ships are also deployed; there is little hard data on the capabilities of the new threat. The Russians insist on naming the CO for the fleet, pointing out that it is their territory,

Reluctantly, they also assert to sending several media representatives along too.


The news has spread across human space, causing considerable panic – and grim resolve. On New Russia, a handful of civilians are evacuated, but the remainder are given weapons and told to hide as best as possible. The Russians move in several additional divisions of troops, reluctantly accepting some SF forces from other powers.

Russian asteroid miners detect hints of alien warships scouting the system. Analysts conclude that the aliens captured a star database from one of the destroyed colonies. The MNF goes on full alert, assuming the worst.


A UN starship enters the Epsilon system, carrying diplomats. The aliens blow her out of space. Unknown to the aliens, a second stealth ship was following the first – and reports that the aliens are clearly landing colonists on Epsilon. There is no contact with the human settlers. The worst is assumed.


News of the response to humanity’s diplomatic probe stiffens resolve at New Russia, as the alien probes grow more blatant.


Alien starships jump into the New Russia system, beginning the Battle of New Russia. Human analysts are relieved, at first, as the aliens do not appear to be that much more advanced than humanity (although they have clearly mastered the art of jumping through flux space in formation, something no human military can boast.) The alien starfighters seem little more advanced than humanity’s best … an illusion that lasts until the aliens lure most of humanity’s CSP out of position. At that point, several new wings of alien starfighters jump through flux space (human starfighters have no jump capability) and savage the MNF.

Caught by surprise, the combined fleet fights as best as it can, but the outcome is inevitable. After losing four carriers, the CO gives the order for the remaining jump-capable ships to retreat, while the damaged ships hold the line as best as they can. The aliens let the surviving human carriers go; without their fighter wings, they’re far less dangerous. Instead, they destroy the remaining fleet and fall on New Russia, wiping out the planet’s defences from orbit. They then start landing troops.


News of the disaster at New Russia reaches Earth – and Admiral Yang is sacked, even though it wasn’t his fault. While Russia calls for an immediate counter-offensive, saner heads prevail, pointing out that the MNF is ill-prepared for launching any sort of offensive. Indeed, the crippling starfighter losses have to be replaced by raw, newly-graduated fliers. Worse, there are suspicions and that not everyone in the MNF fought with equal vigour.

There is panic on the streets, with the population expecting the aliens to be approaching Sol at any moment. Most analysts agree; Earth still possesses most of humanity’s industrial base and its loss would be disastrous. Indeed, fleet units are hastily recalled from other colonies to bolster the defence of Earth, while refitted ships are pressed into service with scratch crews.


After an inexplicable delay, alien forces finally launch their long-dreaded assault on Earth. This time, humanity is ready for their jumping fighters – and has some countermeasures, in the form of jury-rigged antistarfighter frigates. Even so, the aliens come close to breaking up the defence fleet when human reinforcements jump into the combat zone and tip the balance against the aliens. Eventually, the aliens pull back and jump out of the system, conceding defeat.


In the aftermath of the battle, the analysts warn that it may be months, at least, before Earth is ready to launch a full-scale counteroffensive – and besides, very little is actually known about the aliens. They propose a series of raids on alien-held colonies and a set of probe flights out beyond the known galaxy. At least they have a general idea of just which direction the aliens come from.

There is better news; the post-battle assessment teams have located dozens of fragments of alien warships within the Sol System. Once analysied, they believe that humanity may be able to crack the secrets of alien technology.

On New Russia, however, the underground war against the aliens is only heating up. Both sides are turning savage …


USS Enterprise launches a surprise raid on the alien positions over New Russia. The aliens are taken by surprise, allowing the carrier’s strike wing to take out two monitors before the aliens rally and drive the carrier back into interstellar space. However, in the confusion, a network of listening posts was established in the system. Humanity can now start to make contact with the insurgents.

28/05/2238 – 20/06/2238

The war enters a lull as both sides lick their wounds.


Bypassing New Russia – which they believe to be too strongly held to liberate – elements of the MNF launch Operation Reunion, aimed at Epsilon colony. The alien picket force is caught by surprise and swept aside, allowing human forces to land on the planet and recover it from the aliens. Though a combination of orbital bombardment and improved human tactics, a large number of aliens are captured and placed in POW camps. Human sociologists start the long task of trying to understand them.


Irked by the attack on Epsilon, the aliens launch a second attack on Earth. The fighting turns into a meatgrinder, with both sides taking heavy losses, before the aliens retreat for a second time.

Human researchers studying the remains of an alien jump drive start outlining the basics of an in-system FTL communicator (a holy grail, as far as human tech is concerned – and for the aliens too.) Once deployed, humanity should have a significant advantage over the aliens.


Once the alien language was cracked, humans started interrogating the alien POWs intensely. The aliens claim that Epsilon was theirs and that the human settlers landed on the planet without permission. Not all of the analysts believe them, pointing out that the alien leaders might well have lied to their people. However, the UN authorises another peace mission to New Russia.


The diplomatic ship sent to New Russia is fired upon by the aliens – and very lucky to escape with only carbon scoring.


Alien forces return to Epsilon in force, driving the human occupation force away from the planet. Long-range sensors, however, reveal that the aliens butchered their own colonies, rather than trying to free them from the POW camps. Humans watching are shocked – what did the aliens fear?


Human scoutships discover a major alien settlement, just twenty light years from Epsilon. Plans are immediately drawn up to attack it, as it seems likely that it is the staging base for attacks on human space. The world is designated Alien-1.


The reformed MNF jumps out, heading towards Alien-1.


Scoutships reveal that Alien-1 has received additional reinforcements from somewhere else in unexplored space. However, the CO in command of Operation Retribution decides to continue the attack, pointing out that humanity has to knock the aliens back or risk losing the initiative.


Human forces attack Alien-1. After savage fighting, the high orbitals are taken and the planet is deemed secure. However, apart from a handful of KEW strikes, the decision is taken not to attempt to land on Alien-1 itself. Instead, the MNF attacks and captures (or destroys) much of the system’s industrial base.

However, the aliens have settled the system heavily and a prolonged period of space-based insurgency begins.


Word of the battle’s outcome reaches Earth. Humanity is relieved, but the ship losses are deemed alarmingly high. Instead of trying to probe further into alien space, the MNF is ordered to hold position and wait for reinforcements.

21/08/2238 – 27/11/2238

The war stalemates, although human sociologists make progress on unlocking the secrets of the alien society. Their conclusion is that the alien government is rigid, unwilling to accept change – an idea that is mocked by human military officers, who have seen the aliens adapt and innovate under pressure.

In the Sol System, the first FTL communicator net is deployed. Although it has no interstellar range, it offers humanity a definite advantage for in-system fighting.

Furthermore, having learned from the early battles of the war, the MNF starts constructing a whole new series of carriers, starfighters and support craft.


Alien forces surprise humanity by attacking Kennedy, an American-settled world some distance from their angle of attack towards Earth. Eventually, the aliens are beaten off.

29/11/2239 – 03/01/2240

Aliens raid several human worlds, trying to pin and destroy human defences before withdrawing from the system. The UN has political problems dealing with the aftermath of the raids.


Using reports from human scoutships, the MNF hits four alien worlds in quick succession in hopes of knocking the aliens back.


Human researchers hit the jackpot when they finally decipher an alien stellar database, recovered from Alien-1. The aliens are discovered to have a sphere of space nearly twice the size of humanity’s, but with odd internal political divisions. Combined with earlier discoveries, the researchers conclude that the aliens are divided up into nations – or clans. The clans have not properly united to fight the war against Earth. However, this may change.


A large alien fleet jumps into the Britannia System and engages the defenders. This time, analysts are able to identify ships belonging to different alien clans and concentrate their fire accordingly. Eventually, the aliens break off and retreat.


Bolstered by the success at Britannia, the UN authorises yet another peace mission to the newly-located alien homeworld.


Alien forces return to Alien-1, where they discover that human forces have spent the last few months digging into the system. Although the MNF pulls out, the aliens are unable to prevent human ships from rendering the system useless before leaving.


The MNF escorts a peace mission to Alien Prime (their homeworld). The aliens agree to talks, starting with a six-month armistice.

10/04/2240 – 10/08/2240

Human diplomats meet aliens at a neutral system along the border, near Epsilon. The cause of the war is confirmed to be an error; humans settled a system claimed by one of the alien clans, who had been preparing a colony fleet when the humans landed. They assumed that the settlers were their fellow aliens and attacked, only to discover their mistake after they had well and truly started an interstellar war. Most of the human diplomats don’t believe what they’re being told.

However, the UN has been pressured by the demands of war. Most human navies have managed to unite, while much of the bureaucracy has been removed, turning the UN into more of a supranational government than anyone expected. The powers without interstellar colonies fear permanent subordination to powers that do have interstellar colonies and starships making up the MNF. They propose a peace settlement, surrendering Epsilon to the aliens while swapping back the other captured worlds.

This does not please the interstellar powers, who want the aliens to know that they lost the war. (Unknown to the humans, most of the alien clans are happy to surrender Epsilon – after all, it doesn’t belong to them.) They want to keep Epsilon and have a precisely delineated border between the two powers. They present the aliens with an ultimatum – surrender Epsilon or restart the war.


Intent on restarting the war and escaping disgrace, the clan that started the war attacks the peace negotiators in the neutral zone. Surprisingly, the two carriers (one human, one alien) on defence duty manage to work together to beat off the attack, ending the war.


The Treaty of Epsilon is signed, ending the war.

The Slightest Hope of Victory–Snippet!

12 Apr

The Slightest Hope of Victory is Book 3 in the Outside Context Problem trilogy. Books one and two have free samples on my site and then can be purchased from Amazon at the links on their pages.


Alien Command Ship #2

Day 83 (One Day after Second Washington)

Space. The final frontier.

Captain Philip Carlson had lived by those words from a very early age. It had become his dream to travel into space, a dream he had achieved when he had won one of the handful of coveted astronaut slots for himself. The dream had even kept him going when NASA turned further and further away from actual space observation, cutting missions and cancelling next-generation programs that should have put the United States in space permanently. But instead of reaching for the stars, mankind had decided to stay on Earth.

The universe hadn’t left them alone.

Philip stared down at the blue-green orb of Earth and knew despair. He and the rest of his crew were prisoners on an alien spacecraft larger than many cities, a construction so vast as to be utterly beyond the combined efforts of every human space organisation on Earth. Not that any human space agency deserved the title, really, compared to what the aliens had built. Philip had a suspicion that the aliens, far from respecting humanity’s achievements, were actually laughing at them. The space shuttle, compared to the monstrous alien ship, was nothing more than a toy.

And now Earth was occupied. From his vantage point, he could see an endless stream of alien craft – each one far more capable than anything humans had built – heading to and from the planet, carrying alien colonists to their new homeworld. Humanity’s resistance had been brushed aside, almost casually, once the mothership had arrived in orbit. The aliens weren’t gods, but they were powerful. Humanity had inflicted just enough damage to convince them that they had a chance, before the hammer was finally lowered. Earth no longer belonged to the human race.

He scowled at the thought. The aliens having taken his crew prisoner, hadn’t seemed to have any real idea what to do with them – or perhaps they simply didn’t care. There were no anal probes, no interrogation to discover what they knew about Earth’s defences … they hadn’t even been locked up! They’d practically been allowed to wander the ship freely, apart from certain sealed areas. Philip had explored, along with the rest of his crew, but they’d found nothing that they could use against the aliens. He would have sold his soul for a nuke.

But even that wouldn’t have done more than slow the aliens down. The massive city-sized ship that held them was one of four, while there was still the mothership itself and the hundreds of smaller craft. Losing one large craft would have to hurt – they weren’t that powerful that they could afford to lose one without wincing – but it wouldn’t stop them. They’d just keep going … and his crew would have thrown away their lives for nothing.

He gritted his teeth as he stared out into space. Under other circumstances, the observatory – or so he had dubbed it – would have been an endless source of wonder. It was far larger than anything the ISS had possessed, allowing him to stare into space and down towards the planet below. In the distance, he could even see the moon, where NASA had landed a handful of men before it had given up on the space dream. The aliens had crossed at least ten light years to reach Earth. No wonder they weren’t impressed by anything they saw from humanity.

There was a faint rustling sound behind him and he spun around to see one of the alien leadership caste standing behind him. Philip sucked in his breath sharply as he met the dark alien eyes, so dark that there were no pupils or anything else remotely human. The alien stood taller than the average human, with an inhumanly thin body and oversized head. It was easy, now, to see the resemblance between the alien abduction reports and real aliens. Philip had no doubt that humanity had been watched for a long time before the aliens had decided to make their presence known.

He wanted to lash out, to snap the thin alien neck, but he knew that it would do no good. Alien Warriors would come for the human prisoners and that would be the end. If all he could do was watch and wait for an opportunity to strike the aliens, he’d wait. Flying for NASA taught one patience, if little else.

The alien voice was thin, almost completely atonal. “There have been developments,” he said. Or at least Philip thought of the alien as male. It was impossible to tell gender with any certainty. “Your people destroyed a Command Ship over Washington, your nation’s capital. We did not believe that you were capable of such a feat.”

Philip said nothing. The reports they’d intercepted from the ISS had been clear. The USAF had taken a terrible pounding in the war and had been on the verge of coming apart under the strain. The aliens had launched wave after wave of attacks, systematically degrading America’s ability to defend itself against further attacks before the mothership arrived in orbit. Philip had no way of knowing what had happened since the command ship had scooped up and abducted the entire ISS, along with the wreckage of Atlantis – but with thousands upon thousands of aliens heading to their new home, he doubted that it was anything good. The aliens claimed that they’d brought a billion of their people along on their colonisation mission. If that were true, they had enough manpower to subdue the entire planet.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. There wasn’t much alien invasion literature that dealt with a world the aliens had successfully occupied, but what little there was didn’t make pleasant reading. There would be mass starvation, the collapse of human society and disease and deprivation would be rife, while the aliens built their cities and slowly crushed all resistance out of the human race. Human history would come to an abrupt halt. It would truly be the end of days.

“It opens up new opportunities,” the alien said. He turned to look down towards the planet, his dark eyes inscrutable. “We may be able to work together.”

Philip’s flash of anger overrode common sense. If someone down on the planet had managed to destroy an alien craft the size of a city, it was clear that the fight was far from hopeless. Perhaps the human race would wear down the aliens with constant insurgent attacks. He’d heard rumours about preparations before the ISS had been abducted.

“Why?” He demanded. “So we can roll over and surrender our planet to you?”

“No,” the alien replied. “There is more at stake here than you understand. If we work together, we can save both of our races from mutual destruction.”

Semper Fi–Now Available!

10 Apr

Dear Readers

Semper Fi, the fourth book in The Empire’s Corps, is now available from Amazon. Download a free sample and then buy it from Amazon here! And if you like it, please share this post and review.

Two years after the Empire abandoned them on Avalon, Colonel Edward Stalker and his Marines have established the Commonwealth, a union of worlds intended to take the place of the vanished Empire. But now contact has been made with a remnant of the Empire, a successor state controlled by a ruthless dictator bent on crushing the Commonwealth and expanding her rule over the entire galaxy.

While the Commonwealth frantically prepares for war, a small team of Marines is dispatched to the enemy homeworld with orders to bring down the dictator – by any means necessary …

[As a matter of principle, all of my self-published books are DRM-free. You may treat it as you may treat any normal paperback book.]


Margaret Thatcher – We Need More Like Her

9 Apr

Margaret Thatcher was never one for bending, which is partly why she arouses such intense feelings from both the left and the right. No other Prime Minister, with the possible exception of Blair, left such a mixed legacy. It is no surprise to me that far too many people have been celebrating her death, accusing her of wrecking Britain, doing harm to Ireland and causing the Falklands War. Such claims are, at best, exaggerated.

When Thatcher came to power, Britain was in serious trouble. The economy was slowly being strangled by socialist policies, the military was in decline and the country was slowly starting to collapse. Thatcher took on the Unions, something that no previous PM had dared to do, and broke their stranglehold over industrial disputes. Unions are, like so many other problems, great ideas that need to be carefully controlled. The Unions that made up a large part of Britain’s industrial workforce in Thatcher’s time had grown out of control.

That is not to say that Thatcher was perfect, or that she was always right. The Poll Tax might have sounded like a great idea on paper, but when applied in real life it was disastrous. Like other politicians, Thatcher had the vices of her virtues; she might have saved the Conservative Party serious trouble if she’d backed down after the plan received such intense opposition. As it was, she did a great deal of harm to Scots-English relationships and made, for the first time, independence seem a viable and desirable goal in Scotland.

Internationally, Thatcher played a vitally important role, although she was not always successful. She opposed German reunification, fearing (correctly) that a reunified Germany would grow to dominate Europe. She pushed Bush not to back down when facing Saddam, although outside observers may question how instrumental Thatcher was in the US decision to fight the Gulf War. It is tempting to wonder if Thatcher remaining in power for another six months would have led to an early end to Saddam’s regime, but we must deal with the world as it is.

The idea of blaming Thatcher for the Falklands War is so utterly absurd that I have difficulty in believing that anyone seriously accepts it. Thatcher did not invite the military, anti-democratic, fascist government of Argentina to invade the islands; to reason that she somehow caused the war is to follow the same line of logic that states that terrorist and bully victims deserve to be picked on and die. Thatcher’s choice was between fighting or surrendering British citizens to the tender mercies of a junta not known for being tender to its own civilians, let alone anyone else. She had little choice – and, in choosing to fight, not only freed the islands, but helped ensure that the junta (which had been lying to its own people while terminally mismanaging the war) collapsed soon afterwards, giving Argentina another chance at freedom and prosperity.

Thatcher was not the driving force behind the war, nor was she a warmonger. Indeed, she had every legitimate right to sink Argentina’s aircraft carrier as well as her heavy cruiser and chose not to do so, hoping to end the war diplomatically. Indeed, this caused her problems at times, particularly when she lied to Parliament about the direction the cruiser was heading when it was sunk. This was not only pointless, but unnecessary; the ship was a legitimate target and Thatcher might have done better if she’d just rammed that point home over and over again.

There is a line from an issue of The Sandman where President Nixon claims that the worst occupant of the Oval Office ever is the incumbent, no matter who he may be. And then, when the next person comes along, everyone will remember the previous incumbent fondly. That is true of Margaret Thatcher’s career as PM. Although often underrated, John Major was never able to match her successes (and had to deal with the fallout from the Poll Tax affair), while Blair was a fop who committed Britain to two vitally important wars and then failed to support the troops or make an actual contribution to success.

Thatcher was in life (and in death too, I suspect) a hugely controversial figure. However, on the whole, I think that Britain has good cause to be grateful to her – and to wish that we had more like her waiting in the wings.

The Very Ugly Duckling (Bookworm II)–Snippet

9 Apr

Chapter One

The Witch-King, Elaine thought, must have been out of his mind.

She lifted her eyes from the small book on the table, resisting the urge to rub them in the hopes that certain memories would fade from her mind. She’d always had a good memory, even before the entire contents of the Great Library had been dumped into her head, but the Witch-King’s spellbook was too horrifying to remember. Somehow, reading it naturally – rather than having the knowledge stored in her mind – made it worse. It was far too easy to see just how twisted he’d become by necromancy.

There were laws against reading such books, unless one happened to be the Grand Sorcerer. Elaine knew that many young magicians had chafed against such restrictions, assuming that the Grand Sorcerers had wanted to keep certain types of knowledge to themselves, but she understood perfectly. There were spells and forms of magic that were inherently corrupting, so much so that even using one of them once would taint a person for the rest of his or her life. If Elaine had had the power to make some of them work, she had a feeling that Lady Light Spinner would, with the greatest of regret, have ordered her execution. Even so, she was effectively a prisoner in the Great Library.

It wasn’t something she resented, most of the time. She was, after all, one of the most important people in the empire – and she had a seat on the Privy Council, which controlled the empire, as well as the ear of the Grand Sorceress. But there were times when it gnawed at her, such as when she’d been asked to read the Witch-King’s book and see if there were any hints as to his current location. Somehow, against all logic and common sense, the Witch-King was still alive. The gods alone knew where he might be hiding.

Elaine shivered, remembering the brief moment of mental contact when she’d been trying to stop the maddened Kane from destroying the Golden City. The Witch-King was still alive, trapped as a lich – and quite insane. He was effectively immortal; he had literally hundreds of years to prepare his plans, while remaining hidden from even the most intensive probes. If he couldn’t be found, Elaine suspected, he would simply start another plan that would take generations to come to fruitarian. How did one fight an enemy who could take hundreds of years to prepare his offensive? They might well miss the clues until it was far too late.

She looked back at the book and scowled. All magicians of real power – Elaine had very little, despite the knowledge in her head – kept a private spellbook, a tradition the Witch-King had honoured. Unsurprisingly, the spells had grown darker and darker the more she’d read, showing her how to control an army with her mind, corrupt a child or even create a horde of monsters from dead human flesh. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would dare risk using any of those spells, but not everyone had her unique insight into how magic worked. Besides, corruption rarely set in immediately. Someone might use a mildly dark spell, then a slightly darker spell … and, before they knew it, they were corrupted, thinking nothing of using the darkest of spells.

The book should be destroyed, she thought, although training and inclination mediated against it. The Black Vault existed for books that were judged too dangerous to be allowed to be copied and shared everywhere; surely, she had been told, the book would be safe there. But Elaine’s very existence proved otherwise. If the Witch-King’s book had been in the Black Vault, its knowledge would have been dumped into her head along with the rest of the Great Library.

She closed the book, placed it back in the box and concentrated for a long moment, muttering homemade charms under her breath. Standard lock spells were one thing, but the spells she had devised herself were almost impossible to detect – or to open, without the right code. Even the most powerful of magicians should have had problems opening the box – and if he managed to crack through one spell by brute force, the second would incinerate the book. It was better that the book be reduced to ash, Elaine had told herself, than risk it falling into enemy hands. She hadn’t told either Lady Light Spinner, the Grand Sorceress, or Inquisitor Dread about the precaution. It would only have upset them.

Standing up, she picked up the box and placed it within a stack of others, each one completely indistinguishable from the rest. Only the Head Librarian could find anything within the Black Vault; even the most powerful magician in the world would have had problems, at least until he managed to bend the magic shaping and maintaining the pocket dimension to his will. Elaine could have done it, she thought, but few others could have managed such a feat. They would always be tempted to use raw power rather than subtle magic.

Shaking her head, she took a long look around the compartment. Massive bookshelves, bursting with books, ran for as far as the eye could see, each tome forbidden to the vast majority of the population. There were chests of papers belonging to the Grand Sorcerers, sealed away too so that their heirs could keep it to themselves, as well as books and artefacts that had been offered to the Grand Sorcerer by other magicians. The magic that shaped the Black Vault would keep everything preserved, Elaine knew. Generations could pass outside and the books would remain safe.

And hopefully unread, she told herself, as she stepped through the mirror and out into the more normal stacks. Mirrors served as gateways between the normal world and the pocket dimensions used to store the library’s vast collection of books, but only one person could use them to access the Black Vault. Elaine smiled to herself as she felt the library’s magic pulsing around her, closing the gateway, then started to walk towards her office. Moments later, she realised that she had a visitor. Inquisitor Dread.

“Inquisitor,” she said, as she stepped into her office. “Make yourself at home.”

She had to smile as she sat down facing the hooded man. There had been a time when she wouldn’t have dared joke with an Inquisitor, when she wouldn’t have wanted to face one … but Dread was a friend, of sorts. And one of the very few who knew what had happened during the selection process for the Grand Sorcerer. Most of the world believed that the battle between contenders had gotten out of control, wrecking large parts of the city. Elaine knew better.

“Elaine,” Dread said. As always, his voice was near toneless. “I trust that you are prepared?”

Elaine blinked in surprise … and then remembered. They had been scheduled to run a specific security check on the Great Library. And she’d almost been late! No one could have contacted her in the Black Vault, save for the Grand Sorceress.

“I think so,” Elaine said. “Are you ready?”

Dread shrugged, one hand touching the burns on his face. “It wouldn’t matter if I was bleeding out and dying,” he said, flatly. “I’d still have a job to do.”

Elaine nodded, closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. As always, the wards of the Great Library answered her, recognising their mistress. Elaine found the experience slightly disturbing; the Great Library’s wards were old enough to have developed a certain intelligence of their own, something that gave them an odd sense of humour. Anyone who linked into the wards felt as if they were becoming part of the building itself.

No wonder Miss Prim fled the moment she could, Elaine thought, ruefully. She must have hated being convinced that she had birds nesting in her hair.

Pushing the disconcerting sensations aside, Elaine studied the wards carefully. Hundreds of sorcerers had created them, piece by piece; few of them had really understood what they were creating. The Witch-King, before his fall from grace, had been one of them. No wonder he had been able to slip a booby trap through the wards – and no wonder no one had expected anything of the sort! They’d thought that all the magicians who might have built themselves a secret password that would have allowed them to get through the wards were dead.

Elaine shivered at the memory. Bare months ago, she had been a normal librarian, one of many who worked in the Great Library. And then she’d picked up the book that had been carefully steered to her, the book that had been primed to channel all of the knowledge in the library into her mind. And then things had really become complicated.

She smiled to herself as the wards flickered and danced around her. One thing the spell had done – something she doubted the Witch-King had meant it to do – was show her precisely how spells really worked. Most magicians used their raw power to cover up the gaps in their knowledge, doing it so naturally that they never really realised what they were doing. Elaine, on the other hand, had little power, but by dissembling spells and putting them back together again she was able to do much more than she should have been able to do.

Carefully, she began to study how the Great Library’s wards went together … and swallowed a curse as she realised that there were more holes in the library’s security than anyone had ever discovered. Most of them were countered by other wards, but someone with real knowledge might have been able to exploit them. She couldn’t help wondering if there had been more thefts from the library than had ever been officially acknowledged. The librarians would be reluctant to admit failure when every ambitious magician would try to take advantage of the library’s weakness.

All right, she told herself. Here we go.

Piece by piece, she shaped tiny spells in her mind and uploaded them into the library’s wards, mapping them out thoroughly. By now, it would be impossible to dissemble the wards and recast them, no matter how much better they could have become with some careful fiddling and other improvements. They had simply become part of the library. But she could still make some improvements …

She pulled herself out of the wards and opened her eyes, feeling drained. Unlike Miss Prim, her inherent magic wasn’t strong enough to sustain the contact indefinitely, not when the wards drew on her as savagely as any other spell she knew. Dread would probably have been able to hold the contact for hours – the Inquisitors were chosen for magical strength as well as skill and bloody-mindedness – but the wards would have rejected him. The only other person who could have manipulated them was the Grand Sorceress.

“Ready,” she said, as she sagged. Sweat was pouring down her back, despite the cool air. “Are you ready?”

Dread nodded, one hand on his staff. “Can you do it now or wait until later?”

Elaine hesitated. On one hand, she was exhausted – and really needed to get some sleep in her office to allow her magic to recharge. But on the other hand, she didn’t want to have to do the whole process over again – and she would have to, if they delayed too long. The new spells she’d added to the wards wouldn’t last indefinitely.

“I think so,” she said. “Ready?”

Dread bowed his head in acknowledgement.

Elaine allowed herself a tired smile, then linked with the wards again, sending a final command into the network. She felt the wards shift as she fell out of the connection, her magic depleted so badly that she wouldn’t have been able to light a candle, even with the newer lighting spells she’d developed in her own mind. Not that it mattered; now that she’d given the order, the wards could do the rest on their own, sweeping the entire library for signs of unwanted dark magic – or other surprises. Light magic was associated with goodness, naturally, but there were plenty of ways light spells could be used to cause trouble.

“It’s done,” she said, as she collapsed into her seat. “The spells are searching now.”

Dread put out a hand and squeezed hers, an odd gesture of affection from the Inquisitor. “I thank you,” he said. “Now … relax.”

Elaine nodded, torn between watching as the wards searched the library and closing her eyes and trying to sleep. Standard search spells could locate an object within range very quickly, assuming they knew what they were actually looking for. The task she’d assigned to the library’s wards was far harder. They were to locate and catalogue any magic that wasn’t actually part of the library’s protections and filing system, then report back to Elaine. There would probably be plenty of reports of various cheating spells used by students desperate to pass their exams, but she wasn’t too worried about those. The real danger came from darker magic.

She had almost dozed off completely when the wards twitched against her mind. A moment later, a glowing image of the library appeared in front of them, showing the location of every spell and magical artefact that hadn’t been cleared to enter the library. Elaine sucked in her breath when she saw the vast number of cheating spells and charmed note-takers. The Peerless School had always encouraged creative thinking and rule-bending, but surely there were limits.

“I shouldn’t worry about it,” Dread said. “Magic is all about looking for ways to cheat.”

Elaine blinked in surprise. “You’re advocating cheating?”

“Drawing information out of a book isn’t cheating,” Dread pointed out, dryly. “Neither is the use of memory potions to enhance one’s recall. They are taught, after all, because someone might want to use them. Cheating is getting someone else to do the work and most of those spells won’t help with that.”

“I suppose,” Elaine muttered, remembering her own schooling. There had been times when she’d been tempted to cheat, if it had been possible to cheat her way into a greater level of inherent magic. But that had been impossible – then. Now, she knew a thousand ways to boost her power … and the terrible price they demanded. Sanity, for starters. “And that …?”

Dread followed her pointing finger. “That isn’t a standard method of cheating at all,” he said. “That’s a damned compulsion spell.”

Elaine pressed her hands against the glowing image, trying to get it to focus in on the user. It turned out to be a seventeen-year-old girl preparing for her exams. Charity Conidian, Elaine recalled; one of the daughters of a Privy Councillor. Why would she want to cheat when it would reflect badly on her father? But the charm might not be her work at all.

“I’ll ask Vane to bring her into my office,” Elaine said, as she staggered to her feet. “You can interview her there without disturbing the other students.”

Vane obeyed without question. Elaine’s deputy wasn’t a good librarian – she certainly lacked the obsession with books that had driven Elaine when she was younger – but she was good at dealing with people, a quality that Elaine lacked. Her smile, undoubted power and family connections allowed her to handle the library’s staff and visitors, leaving Elaine to work on managing the library’s collection and writing her own spellbook.

“Draw some energy from the wards,” Dread advised. “You might need it.”

Elaine shook her head. The library’s wards simply didn’t work that way.

Charity Conidian proved to be the sort of girl that Elaine had hated, back when she’d been in school. Beautiful, rich, well-connected … and actually good at her studies. Long blonde hair framed a heart-shaped face that was probably the result of endless cosmetic charms – or so Elaine told herself. Charity reminded her of Millicent, before Kane had almost destroyed her mind. Six months later, Millicent still hadn’t recovered completely.

“Good afternoon,” Dread said, lifting his wand. The girl’s eyes went wide, but he had the compulsion spell off her before it could force her to do anything drastic. “Who put that spell on you?”

“My father,” Charity said. Very few people would be stupid enough to lie to an Inquisitor. “I asked him to do it.”

Elaine stared at her. Compulsion spells were not exactly illegal, but using one on someone without a very good reason was likely to get someone in hot water. And using one on one’s own daughter? The books in Elaine’s head told her that it had happened before, in far more detail than she’d ever wanted to know. None of the reasons were very good.

“Your father, the Conidian, put a basic compulsion spell on you,” Dread said. He didn’t sound as if he believed her either. “Why?”

Charity sagged. “I was having problems keeping up with my studies,” she admitted, “and father promised me an establishment of my own if I graduated in the top ten. But I just couldn’t concentrate! So I went to him and asked him for the charm.”

Elaine and Dread shared a glance. As far as she knew – and thanks to the Witch-King her memory went back as far as the foundation of the empire itself – that was unprecedented.

She found herself giving the girl a look of mild respect. Actually going to someone and asking them to use such a charm, just to help them study? Elaine couldn’t decide if it was a stroke of genius or absolute madness.

“Compulsion charms can be dangerous,” Dread said, “particularly if someone accepted them voluntarily. I suggest that you learn to master the art of studying without such help.”

He scowled at her. “And your father will hear from me about it,” he added. “He should know better than to use such charms on his daughter.”

Charity bowed her head, then retreated from the office.

“Well,” Dread said, once the door was closed. “That was a fine waste of time.”

“Maybe,” Elaine said. The Conidian served on the Privy Council, after all. She had a feeling that she hadn’t heard the last of the whole affair. “But at least we know the monitoring system works now.”

“Yes,” Dread said. “Until someone else finds a new way to break in.”