Archive | October, 2015

Updates (Sorry)

31 Oct

Sorry, another set of updates.

I’m currently 25 chapters into The Black Sheep (A Learning Experience III). I’m taking a short break as we’re going to London, but I hope to have the manuscript finished by the 10th (before NOVACON). I’ll get it uploaded to Amazon as soon as possible, once it’s written. I need a cover.

I’ve also finished the second set of edits for Wedding Hells, which is now on its way for the line edit, and I think we’ll see it published in two months at most. (Again, we need a cover.)

My current plan is to write The Barbarian Bride next, concluding the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire series. After that … well, we shall see.

And Eric is definitely developing the right habits for a writer’s son <grin>



On The Importance of Feedback

30 Oct

Two interesting (and seemingly unrelated) articles popped up in my Facebook feed today. The first was a reaction post to the new Supergirl TV series, which called it ‘Badly-written, Badly-acted Dreck.’ (I haven’t watched the pilot episode, so I cannot comment on it – besides, pilots are often quite weak viewing in any case.) The second was a piece entitled ‘The Left’s War On Comments Sections’.

You may ask what these have in common. Read on.

Reading the first link led to an interesting series of points. Official commenters – The Washington Post, Vox – applauded the episode in no uncertain terms. Unofficial commenters – the IMDB page is particularly noteworthy – were less impressed. Many of their reviews boiled down to an episode that tries too hard to sell a message, rather than tell a story.

The issue here, as I see it, is that the first set of commenters focus on the industry buzzwords – feminism, in this case. (The fact that Kara is a superpowered alien, with powers no human can match, is seemingly ignored.) Their argument is that Supergirl is great because it’s a feminist show, that Kara is a great role model for young girls. But the second set of commenters aren’t looking for deep symbolism, they’re looking to be entertained. And their assertion is that Supergirl is not entertaining.

Now, I have no idea if the producers are reading the IMDB page or not, but that’s the kind of feedback they need (if not what they want). They should not be trying to make TV shows (etc) that appeal to the cultural elite, but shows that appeal to their watchers. All the plaudits in the world from official commenters won’t help if viewers are changing the channel and watching something else.

Feedback, actual feedback, is important. And that’s where the second article comes in.

One of the issues writers have to deal with is people who don’t feel obliged to give them a good review. (Every writer has a story about showing a manuscript to his mother, who says it’s wonderful, and then puts it online and gets nothing apart from one-star reviews.) I know it hurts have your work dissected by a reader, to read a comment that tears at the very foundation of your novel, but it has to be endured. Feedback from the readers is the only pro-active way to monitor your own success and work to improve it. (Or, sometimes, to overcome the ‘this is awful’ depression that writers get from time to time.)

I’ve had a lot of feedback over the years. Sometimes, it’s helpful remarks about words I’ve misspelled or facts I’ve gotten wrong. Sometimes, it’s suggestions about the direction of the plot that need to be incorporated into the manuscript. Sometimes, I think about it overnight and decide I don’t agree with the reader. That’s my decision – I’m the writer – but the mere fact that someone commented on it means I have a problem.

Yes, there are bad commenters out there. There are ‘drive-by commenters’ who say “I don’t like this” and buzz off without bothering to explain why. There are trolls whose only objective is to get under your skin, people who haven’t read the book but feel compelled to give an opinion anyway. I think every writer gets people like this … yet, trying to deny them the right to comment is not only pointless (Amazon rarely deletes legitimate reviews), but self-defeating (you won’t get feedback you desperately need).

The odd disconnect between official and unofficial commenters that I noted above appears in the publishing world too, with odd results. Comments on Star Wars: Aftermath have suffered from a similar spilt, with many official commenters praising the book while unofficial commenters have been sharply criticising it. (It currently has 1407 reviews on Amazon US, with an overall rating of 2.5.) The literature elite’s power to push a book has been crippled, perhaps fatally, by the change in the market, by the ability of everyone to review a book they bought. Indeed, the problems facing the Hugo Awards owe a great deal to the fact that official commenters praise books for their message first and put entertainment second.

For writers, the tendency to believe official commenters over unofficial commenters can be disastrous. The average reader does not want to be given a message, but relax into an alternate world they can enjoy. It doesn’t matter if they’re a SF reader, fantasy reader or even a romance reader. Entertainment comes first! Plaudits from the elite are no longer worth what they were, if indeed they were worth anything in the first place. All that matters is pleasing the readers – and the only way to know how well you’re doing is listening to the feedback.

The reboot of Battlestar Galactica suffered from the same problem. I don’t mind admitting that much of the first two seasons included some of the finest moments in TV science-fiction since Babylon 5. (And both the miniseries and the first episode of the series were very good.) But nBSG went off the rails shortly afterwards, at the same time as its producers were being invited to the United Nations. They sacrificed the interests of their viewers for the praise of the cultural elite and the show became unwatchable.

I don’t know if the second article is right, if there is a growing tendency to ban commenters from blogs, online newspapers, etc. Jokes aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was. The concept that someone disagrees with you (that they think your book isn’t the paragon of good writing you believe it to be) isn’t an easy one to stomach. And there is the prospect of someone who knows more than you, or is simply more convincing, popping up to lure your readers away. But it has to be faced.

But, for what it’s worth, I don’t ever intend to stop listening to feedback.

The Employer Owes You Nothing

20 Oct

A few days ago, I shared the picture below on my Facebook wall. It drew some interesting comments, with people on one side agreeing that she had a raw deal and others insisting she took a useless course and now has nothing, but debts and useless qualifications.


Unfortunately, the second group is correct.

Your prospective employers are interested, only interested, in people who can do the job. In order to rate your suitability for a particular job, they look at your qualifications, your experience and your general attitude. If you don’t come up to their minimum level, they are unlikely to bother giving you an interview, let alone the job itself. And why should they? The world owes you nothing.

Your qualifications show them that you are determined enough to get a position that you worked hard for several years to earn the right qualifications. (This is why students should never try to insist they deserve high marks because they paid to attend college/university.) Your experience shows them that you can actually do the job. A year or two of actually doing the job – or something comparable – is worth any amount of qualifications. And your general attitude, both public (at the interview) and private (online profile, etc) shows them how well you will fit in with the rest of the company. If you insist on having your parents in the interview room, insist that you deserve the damn job, post radical sentiments on Facebook or any of the other interview mistakes there are out there (there’s no shortage of advice on the internet) you probably won’t get the job.

What you have to ask yourself, when you plan to go to college/university, is just what your planned degree is worth. What can you do with it? If you don’t choose one of the STEM subjects (or medicine and related fields) you may find you’ve educated yourself out of the market, that there are so many people with the same degrees and more experience that finding a job is very hard. Or that the only jobs you can get are so basic that you’re in competition with people who never went to college. You may never get a chance to use your fancy degree.

The thing you have to bear in mind about choosing a college/university course is that the people trying to get you on the course are effectively salesmen. Their morals, at base, are no better than real estate agents who take care to show you on the best side of a house, or the insurance salesmen who have so much fine print that they can disallow almost any claim if they wish. They want as many people in their classes as possible and will make whatever promises they need to make to get you to sign on the dotted line. DO NOT be fooled when you get told, as you will (I was), that 90% of their graduates have jobs within the first year of their professional lives. Chances are that the statement is only technically accurate – the jobs have nothing to do with their qualifications – or a flat-out lie.

If you happen to want a particular job, do some research and figure out what you actually need to get the job. (As Fred Clark notes, if you want to fly Air Force One, you really should join the USAF!) And, while you’re at it, work out what the hidden requirements are.

For example, I was looking at a page on Women’s Studies (here) which paints a rosy picture of what their graduates can do after they graduate. Cynic that I am, I have a feeling that most of the jobs listed on the page require other qualifications as well. A midwife needs rather more than just a degree in Women’s Studies. In fact, she doesn’t need a degree in Women’s Studies at all. Other examples don’t require qualifications at all, at least on the surface. The graduate will find herself in competition with others who don’t have 60K in student loans or whatever. In some cases, they may not even have lost sight of what’s important.

Higher Education, in Britain or America, isn’t exactly a scam, but it’s getting there. Unless your family is wealthy, the student loans you take out will be a burden for the rest of your life. Those loans have to be paid off before you can truly consider yourself a free person. But if the degree you wind up with is useless, when it comes to getting a high-paid job, you’re in deep trouble. You have to find a degree you can use as something more than a piece of decoration on your wall.

If you’re 16 and you’re looking at your options, do some research and figure out just where you want to be when you’re 26.

But, if you’re 26 and your degree is worthless, it’s time to stop feeling and start thinking.

I understand how the woman in the picture feels, because I’ve been there myself. My university lied to me too. I left thinking I could just walk into a job and found myself, rapidly, in competition with people with the same degree and more experience. I too wound up working menial jobs to support myself while I looked for my in … and, even when I did get an entry-level job in a library, it took me years to get a step or two up the chain. Many of the people who held the same entry-level job had no degree themselves (and really, none was needed.) My former boss had a list of degrees and accomplishments as long as my arm. The chances for promotion were very slight – and bear in mind that my degree was actually relevant.

There’s no one I can blame for my decision to study a degree with limited job-finding potential, except for myself. If you’re in the same boat, stop whining about how unfair life is – yes, it is unfair – and start thinking. How can I make myself look better to prospective employers?

For a start, you can find ways to better yourself. Take a course in something relatively simple, but you can talk up if necessary. Accounting, for example, or typing. Then you can look for work experience; you may, if you look around, find somewhere that will give you unpaid work you can put on your resume. Charity shops are always looking for volunteers. You may not get paid, but you’ll get experience and probably a good set of references out of the deal. Don’t be ashamed, either, to look for even worse jobs than bartender. Employers are looking for people with the ‘can do’ attitude, not ‘I want what’s owed to me NOW.’

I suspect a few people will find this advice rather frustrating. I felt the same way when I got it myself. I’d worked hard for the degree … surely, I was owed a job after I graduated? No, I wasn’t – and, if I am forced to be honest, I didn’t lose that attitude quickly enough. I may have paid my dues to earn the degree, but I didn’t pay the dues needed for a high-paying job. Having a fancy degree does not entitle anyone to a job …

… And having an attitude that boils down to ‘you owe me’ is only going to convince prospective employers that they don’t want you anywhere near their company.

Snippet – The Black Sheep (A Learning Experience III)

19 Oct


Datanet Discussion Forums are buzzing after Captain Hoshiko Stuart stated, publicly, that the Solar Union should not consider intervening in the ongoing civil war on Earth. Her comments have been repeated by a number of other ‘Solarians’ who feel that the affairs of our former homeworld are none of our concern …

-Solar News Network, Year 54

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Marie Campbell said, over the communications network, “Captain Hoshiko Stuart has arrived.”

Admiral Mongo Stuart, Commander-in-Chief of the Solar Navy, looked up from his desk, keeping his face impassive despite his inner dismay. He knew how to reward good performance and he was an expert at chewing out the incompetent or criminally stupid, but dealing with something who had crossed the line without quite doing anything against the Solar Navy’s regulations was a little harder. The whole affair left a sour taste in his mouth. He’d seen enough good men and women railroaded by the former United States Navy on Earth, all for political reasons, to hate the thought of doing it himself. But there was little choice.

“Send her in,” he ordered. “And then hold all my calls unless they’re urgent.”

“Yes, sir,” Marie said.

Mongo sat upright as the hatch hissed open, revealing Captain Hoshiko Stuart. She was third-gen, the granddaughter of Steve Stuart – Mongo’s brother – himself, the closest thing to outright royalty in the Solar Union. Not that she or anyone else in the Stuart family had been allowed to think of themselves as royalty. Hoshiko had earned her stripes, as surely as any of her peers in the Solar Navy; no one, not even the handful of politicians who argued the Stuart family exercised undue influence within the Solar Union, questioned her competence. But that hadn’t stopped them from using her words as a talking point.

“Admiral,” Hoshiko said.

Mongo studied her for a long moment, allowing the silence to lengthen. She was tall, her features a mixture of Caucasian and Japanese, her skin tinted and her almond eyes dark and expressive. Like all third-gen children, she had the genetic modifications that ensured both a natural lifespan of over two hundred years and a immunity to disease, most poisons and even tooth decay. She could have turned herself into a goddess, if she’d wished – most teenagers went through a stage of changing their looks on a daily basis – but she’d stayed with the appearance her parents and grandparents had gifted to her. At thirty-five, she looked twenty-one. And she held herself with the poise of a seasoned veteran, waiting for him to speak.

Her file flashed up in front of his eyes, prompted by a mental query to his implants. Born in Year 19, entered the Solar Navy in Year 35 – the youngest possible age – and graduated from Sparta Military College in Year 39. Assigned to a destroyer, then to a light cruiser; assigned to command an alien-designed battlecruiser during the Battle of Earth, where she acquitted herself well. No black marks in her file until two weeks ago, when she’d made a number of statements to the Solar News Network that had ignited a political firestorm.

And she’s certainly bright enough to understand what she’s done, Mongo thought, as he directed his attention back towards Hoshiko. The only question is why?

“Captain,” he said, coolly. He might be her Great-Uncle, but he wasn’t going to do her any favours and she had to know it. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“Yes, sir,” Hoshiko said.

“Explain,” Mongo ordered.

“I gave an interview to the Solar News Network,” Hoshiko said. Her voice was very flat, suggesting she was either keeping it under tight control or using her implants to ensure she betrayed none of her internal feelings. “I expressed my feelings on the planned intervention on Old Earth. The interview went viral and spread through the datanet.”

“Correct,” Mongo said. He cocked his head to one side. “Why did you give that interview, Captain?”

Hoshiko, for the first time, showed a flicker of animation. “I was asked for my opinion, sir,” she said, “and I gave it.”

Mongo lifted his eyebrow, inviting her to explain further.

“I am a Solarian,” Hoshiko said. “My parents may have been born on Old Earth, but I was not. I grew up on an asteroid colony, sir, with all the boundless wealth of space all around me. My fellows and I enjoy a freedom that none on Earth can even comprehend. The problems of Old Earth do not concern us. They are free to move to the Solar Union, if they wish, or continue to live amongst the dirt. The social and political breakdown on the planet is none of our concern. We certainly do not wish to spend blood and treasure trying to save the Earthers from themselves.”

“And that was what you told the reporters,” Mongo said.

“Yes, sir.”

Mongo had to admit, if only in the privacy of his own thoughts, that she had a point. The Solar Union’s invitation to everyone on Earth remained open – and would remain open for as long as the Solar Union itself endured. Leave the gravity well and live in space, where even a low-paying job could ensure a decent lifestyle. Hoshiko, like so many of her peers, couldn’t comprehend just why so many Earthers were scared of implanting technology, let alone genetic splices and fixes, into their bodies. Hell, Mongo found the concept scary at times … and, without the nanotech and automated doctors they’d captured from the Horde, he knew he’d be dead by now. But there were other concerns.

“Many of us have ties to Earth,” he pointed out. “Don’t you feel we might have legitimate concerns?”

“No, sir,” Hoshiko said. “The Solar Union was founded on the concept of escaping Earth, of escaping governments that were too limited to allow true freedom. I see no value in looking back to our roots.”

“You have relatives down there,” Mongo pointed out.

“I don’t know them,” Hoshiko countered. “Surely they could come up here, if they wished?”

Mongo gave her a long considering look. Hoshiko had never seen the Stuart Ranch, where Mongo and his brothers had been born and raised. She was used to controlled environments, not the beauty of Earth. But, at the same time, he knew she had a point. The American melting pot had only started to come apart at the seams when it had become easy, too easy, to remain in touch with the Old Country, for old grudges to cross the oceans and infect the United States. Mongo still mourned the country he’d served, even though it had left him behind a long time before the Solar Union had been formed. It was hard for him to say goodbye.

“Military officers are not supposed to talk to the press,” he said, instead. “You should not have given that interview.”

“Military officers are supposed to speak their minds, as long as they can back up their statements,” Hoshiko countered. “Can I speak freely, Admiral?”

“You may,” Mongo said.

“Am I in trouble because I’m a military officer who spoke to the press,” Hoshiko asked, “or because I’m a Stuart who disagreed with the family line?”

“The family does have an interest in its property on Earth,” Mongo said.

“Which it shouldn’t have,” Hoshiko said. “It provides a tie to the planet we sought to escape, sir. The older generation may want to keep it, but the younger generation sees no value in it.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Mongo agreed.

He cleared his throat. “Yes, you are in trouble because the family can no longer present a united front,” he admitted. “Our opponents in the Senate have not hesitated to capitalise on your remarks.”

“The united front did not exist,” Hoshiko pointed out, coolly. She waved a hand at the walls, where a number of images from the Battle of Earth were prominently displayed. “You may want to try to recover territory on a single world; we want to get out there and build empires, carry the human race to heights unmatched even by the Tokomak! There is nothing to be gained by becoming involved with scrabbles on Earth when there’s an entire universe out here, just waiting to be seized. Our manifest destiny is out there, Admiral!”

“We are one small system, with a handful of allies,” Mongo said. “There is no way we can hope to conquer the entire galaxy, let alone the universe.”

“Not now, no,” Hoshiko said. “But we seem to have a choice between building an empire – call it what you like, Admiral – of our own or taking the risk that someone else will build an empire. The Tokomak still have millions of starships under their command, sir, and we’re not the only ones who can innovate. Even if the Tokomak Empire falls apart, sir, one of the successor states may pose a greater threat. We don’t have time for narrow-minded people who look at the prospects before us and flinch away.”

Mongo took a second to place firm controls on his temper before speaking. “You present us with an unusual challenge,” he said. “If you were to be court-martialled for your actions, it would require open discussion of the issue, which would not rebound to anyone’s credit. But if you are not punished, it will look as though the family name has protected you from the consequences. I’ve decided to take a third option.”

He waited for a long moment. Hoshiko said nothing.

“We have been asked to establish a military and trader base in the Martina Sector,” he explained. Hoshiko closed her eyes for a moment, clearly consulting her implants. “This base will have a battle squadron of heavy cruisers attached to it, as well as a handful of support ships and intelligence personnel. You will be reassigned to Jackie Fisher as her commanding officer, but you will also be in overall command of the detachment and roving ambassador to any local alien powers. I’ll assign a steady hand to serve as your XO. You’re going to be very busy.”

“That’s six months away,” Hoshiko said, shocked.

“Yes,” Mongo said. He hid an amused smile. The rest of the assignment clearly hadn’t sunk in, yet. “You and your squadron will be on a five-year deployment. During that time, you will have considerable autonomy, as long as you stay within the standing orders. Assuming all goes well, you will be relieved by another squadron at the end of your time on station. By that point, one would hope the political crisis here will be resolved, one way or the other.”

It was, he thought, a neat solution. Hoshiko couldn’t remain in touch with anyone in the Solar Union, not when it would take at least a year for her to send a message and receive a reply. If anyone questioned her deployment, he could point to it and say it was a punishment, but if she did well, her career could resume it’s more normal course after her deployment came to an end. A court-martial, on the other hand, would terminate her career even if she was found innocent.

“You’ll receive a full intelligence brief, what little we know about the sector, once you reach your new command,” he told her. “Martina itself is a shared world, thanks to the Tokomak, but there are several alien races nearby that may pose a threat. There’s also a large number of humans, descendents of alien slaves, living within the sector. We’d like you to try to build ties with them, as well as protect shipping and generally represent the Solar Union to the locals.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoshiko said. She snapped off a tight salute. “I will make you proud.”

“See that you do,” Mongo warned. “You’re going to be on your own out there. Good luck.”

Chapter One

Fighting broke out again in California as the Mexican Independence Front, with armoured support from Mexican tanks, attempted to push north against the United Farmers Alliance, who have been receiving support from Texas. The Governor of Texas stated that she would not hesitate to support her fellow Americans in their struggle against the Mexican threat.

-Solar News Network, Year 54

Hoshiko didn’t want to admit it, not even to herself, but she was bored.

She was the kind of person who always wanted to be doing something. She’d always been a very active person, even as a young girl growing up on Stuart Asteroid. Hoshiko had been first to take a spacewalk, first to explore the nooks and crannies of the asteroid without parental supervision, first to use a neural interface and plunge into a virtual world, first to lose her virginity and first to apply successfully to the Naval Academy. The thought of just sitting in orbit around Martina was horrifying, yet she’d been stuck there for over six months. There were only so many tasks for the squadron and she was privately surprised that morale had held up as well as it had.

Because we’re pretty much isolated out here, she thought, as she paced her cabin and scowled at the near-orbit display. And there’s very little to do.

She glowered at the blue-green planet at the centre of the display, surrounded by hundreds of starships, orbital habitats and industrial nodes. Martina was a shared world – there were over twenty different races living in near-harmony on the surface – and there was almost nothing in the way of planetary authority. No one had been able to muster the authority to tell her she couldn’t establish a naval base in the system, but no one had been able to meet her for more substantive discussions either. She hoped, for their sake, that no one ever decided to view the system as a target – there was no unified defence force – but she knew the peace surrounding the planet wouldn’t last. Martina had no less than nine gravity points orbiting the local star, each one a money-making bonanza for a military power strong enough to demand passage fees.

And they’ll get them too, she reminded herself. Interstellar shippers will pay whatever it takes to get through a gravity point, cutting hundreds or thousands of light years off their trips.

She picked up the datapad containing the latest set of readiness reports, then put it down again unread. There was no point. The squadron had exercised regularly, both to ensure their skills were kept up to par and show off humanity’s military might to potential threats, but they hadn’t fired their weapons in anger since a brief encounter with a pirate ship two months ago. Her real problem was keeping her crews busy and entertained, ensuring they didn’t slip into VR worlds or sneak down to the planet and desert. There was a small human community on Martina after all, descended from men and women who’d been taken from Earth centuries ago. An enterprising crewman could probably make a few local contacts and vanish if he wished. Somehow, Hoshiko doubted the local authority would help to search for a missing crewman.

“And if Uncle Mongo wanted to punish me,” she muttered to herself, “he couldn’t have found a better way.”

She glowered at the display, again. The squadron was so far from Earth that everything they heard was second or third-hand, passed on by a handful of supply ships and freighters that had made their way to Martina, hoping to open up new trade routes into the sector. Hoshiko didn’t blame them for trying – having dinner with the trader captains was one of the few highlights of her position – but so far their results had been very poor. The sector didn’t have anything unique or interesting … and it was very far from Earth. She was surprised the freighters kept coming.

Probably trying to buy more starships, she thought, crossly. We can never have enough.

Her intercom buzzed. “Captain, this is Ensign Howard on the bridge,” a voice said, nervously. He clearly hadn’t managed to overcome his fear of interrupting his commanding officer, who would doubtless be doing important work in her cabin. “We have five ships inbound to Martina at FTL speeds.”

Hoshiko frowned. Ensign Howard was so young she was marginally surprised he wasn’t still in diapers. Jackie Fisher was his first assignment, right out of the Academy; he was simply too inexperienced to realise that few captains would be angry if they were disturbed, not even if it turned out to be nothing. Better safe than sorry was a lesson the Solar Union had drummed into its citizens from a very early age. Asteroids, even with modern technology, were hardly safe.

“Five ships,” she repeated. Every day, there were hundreds of starships passing through the system. She tried to keep her voice calm. “Why do you think this is important?”

There was a pause. “Captain, two of them read out as Livingston-class freighters,” Howard said, finally. “The other three seem to be warships – and they’re in hot pursuit. They’re practically right on top of the freighters.”

Hoshiko’s eyes narrowed. Livingston-class freighters were unique to humanity, as far as she knew; there were only a handful in the sector, all of which were registered with the Solar Union. Two of them flying in unison almost certainly meant a trade mission … and, if that was the case, the pursuing warships were an ominous development. She sent a command through her implants into the cabin’s processors, getting them to display the live feed from the gravimetric sensors. Howard was right. Five ships would not be flying so close together if three of them weren’t trying to run the other two down.

“I’m on my way,” she said. Assuming the freighters were heading for the base she and her crews had painstakingly established, they’d drop out of FTL within two hours. “Sound yellow alert, then inform the squadron to prepare for combat manoeuvres.”

“Aye, Captain,” Howard said.

It was probably nothing more than pirates, Hoshiko told herself as she checked her uniform in the mirror before striding out of her office and down towards the bridge. But she couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement anyway. The pirates wouldn’t be expecting to run into nine heavy cruisers, not at Martina. There wasn’t even a formalised out-system patrol force to fend off pirates who might come calling. Even the ground-based defences weren’t as formidable as they could have been.

She stepped through the hatch and walked to her command chair. No one saluted – yellow alert protocols insisted that crewmen had to watch their consoles at all times – but she saw a number of backs stiffen as Ensign Howard practically leapt out of the command chair and snapped to attention. Hoshiko gave him an approving smile, then nodded towards the tactical console.

“I have the bridge,” she said, firmly.

“You have the bridge, Captain,” Ensign Howard said. “Intruder ETA is now 97 minutes …”

“Assuming they drop out at your predicted endpoint,” Hoshiko said, cutting him off. She didn’t blame the ensign for assuming the unknown ships were heading for the base, but there was no way to be sure. “Squadron status?”

“Yellow alert,” Ensign Howard reported. “Combat datanet is standing by, ready to activate; tactical communications net is up and running. No signals from the planet as yet.”

“Unsurprising,” Hoshiko said. She took her seat and studied the tactical display for a long moment. “Take your console, Ensign. Let’s see what’s coming our way.”

She heard the hatch opening again behind her, but said nothing as her XO, Commander Griffin Wilde, stepped into view and took the seat next to her. Wilde wasn’t a bad man, she had to admit, yet he was easily twice her age – he remembered living on Earth before his parents had emigrated to the Solar Union – and he had almost no imagination at all. Hoshiko had a feeling that Wilde had actually been assigned to the squadron to keep an eye on her, or at least try to dampen her more ambitious schemes. But if that were the case, it was hardly necessary. The opportunities she’d hoped would appear, when she’d led the squadron through the gravity point for the first time, had never materialised.

“Captain,” Wilde said.

Hoshiko turned and gave him a tight smile. He even looked old, with grey hair, although she’d seen his medical report and knew he was physically fit. Choosing not to make himself look like a young man was a statement, just as much as her refusal to alter her looks was a statement, although she didn’t understand it. Some men, she’d been told, were just born old, without the mindset that would allow them to have fun. She didn’t understand that either.

“Commander,” she said. “We may be in for some excitement.”

She leaned back in her command chair, watching the reports flowing in from the remainder of the squadron, as the unknown ships came close. Tracking did their best, but apart from estimates regarding the size and power of the warships they weren’t able to add much else, certainly nothing solid. Hoshiko rehearsed the engagement in her mind, contemplating the different weapons mixes they might face and waited. At least, now there was a prospect of action, she could wait patiently.

“Captain, they’re altering course slightly,” Ensign Howard said. “They’re now angling directly towards the station.”

“Understood,” Hoshiko said. She contemplated, briefly, detaching two of her ships to take up a different position, but decided it would probably be futile. A few seconds in FTL would put the incoming ships millions of kilometres from the waiting ships. “Hold position and wait, but prepare to move us when they arrive.”

“Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Sandy Browne said. The helmsman had been running tactical simulations of his own. “Drives are ready and free; I say again, drives are ready and free.”

Hoshiko nodded, then waited as the last minutes counted down to zero, knowing that there were too many uncertainties. There was no way to know the ships were heading for the base, for her squadron; they could easily be planning to skim around the planet’s gravity well and try to lose their pursuers. Or they could be planning to plunge into a gravity point at speed, hoping to escape through sheer nerve. They’d be vomiting on the decks, if they survived, but it might be their only hope. Did they even know there was a human squadron at Martina?

“Contact,” Ensign Howard said. “They just dropped out of FTL. Two freighters, Livingston-class; I say again, two freighters, Livingston-class.”

“Raise them,” Hoshiko ordered.

She took a long breath, knowing they had bare seconds before the warships arrived and announced themselves. Thankfully, there shouldn’t be any problems establishing communications with human ships … unless, of course, something had wrecked their communications systems. The Tokomak had done their best to ensure that everyone spoke the same language, at least during interspecies communications, but even they had never succeeded in making the handful of artificial languages universal.

And a good thing too, she thought, remembering her lessons at the Academy. Those languages were carefully designed to dampen individual thought.

Three red icons popped into life on the display. “Contact,” Ensign Howard said, again. This time, he sounded almost panicky. “Three warships, unknown class. Database comparison suggests they’re light cruisers.”

“Sound Red Alert,” Hoshiko ordered. “Raise shields. Charge weapons.”

She frowned as more data flowed onto the display. Most alien races used starships based on Tokomak designs, knowing them to be reliable even though they were hard to modify or rebuild. They were, quite simply, the most prevalent ship designs in the galaxy. Even the Solar Union, which was ramping up its own design and building process as fast as it could, still used thousands of Tokomak-designed ships. But facing a whole new design … there was no way to know what she might be about to encounter. If humanity could invent a weapons system that smashed battleships as if they were made of paper, who knew what another race could design and put into operation?

“Unknown ships are scanning us,” Ensign Howard reported.

“No word from the freighters,” Lieutenant Yeller added. The communications officer was working his console frantically. “The unknown ships are attempting to hail us.”

“Put them through,” Hoshiko ordered.

There was a long pause, then a dull atonal voice – the product of a translator – echoed through the bridge. “We are in pursuit of criminals,” it said. “Allow us to capture the criminals or you will be fired on.”

Hoshiko blinked in surprise. The unknown ships had defied communications protocols that had been in existence long before humanity started building anything more complex than stone axes and rowing boats. Every spacer in the known universe used the protocols, save – perhaps – for the race in front of her. Could they be completely new? Her heartbeat raced at the thought, although she knew it was unlikely. The Tokomak had held the sector in their grip for thousands of years. They’d know every power in the sector intimately.

“Those ships are human ships,” she said. She had strict orders to defend human shipping, if nothing else. Besides, she had no idea just what was going on. “Allow us to take them into custody and investigate. If they are criminals, they will be dealt with.”

“Enemy ships are charging weapons,” Lieutenant-Commander Rupert Biscoe snapped. “They’re locking targeting sensors on our hulls.”

“Return the favour,” Hoshiko ordered. No one, unless they had almost no understanding of the ships they controlled, allowed anyone to see their weapons being charged unless it was a deliberate threat. Just what was going on? “Try and raise the freighters again …”

“Incoming message,” the communications officer said.

“This matter is none of your concern,” the atonal voice said. “Stand down or be fired upon.”

Hoshiko took a long breath. “We will take the ships into custody and investigate the crews,” she said, tartly. “Should they be confirmed as criminals, they will be returned to you. We …”

Jackie Fisher rocked, violently.

“Enemy ships have opened fire,” Biscoe said. “Standard directed-energy weapons. Shields held. No damage”

A warning shot, Hoshiko thought. She fought down the urge to simply return fire, even though she was sure she held a considerable advantage. Are they mad?

“Picking up a message from the lead freighter,” Yeller reported. “It’s very weak.”

“Put it through,” Hoshiko ordered.

“This is Captain Ryman of SUS Speaker to Seafood,” a voice said. Hoshiko hastily launched a query into the datanet, trying to confirm Ryman’s identity. Moments later, a voiceprint match popped up in front of her. “We have a cargo of refugees from Amstar. We need help …”

“Enemy ships are locking weapons on the freighters,” Biscoe reported.

“Move us forward to shield them,” Hoshiko ordered. Refugees from Amstar? Her implants told her it was a star system thirty light years from Martina, but there was little else current in the datafiles. Like Martina, Amstar was a shared world, peaceful and boring. Why would refugees be fleeing to Martina, on human ships? “Tactical …”

“Enemy ships are opening fire,” Biscoe reported. “Freighter Two is taking heavy damage.”

“Open fire,” Hoshiko snapped. Human-designed freighters carried better shields than the average Tokomak-designed freighter, but they weren’t strong enough to stand up to a full barrage from the light cruisers for long. “I say again, all ships open fire.”

She expected the enemy vessels to turn and run, but instead they accelerated towards the human ships, one of them firing a final spread of missiles in passing at Freighter Two and blowing her into an expanding cloud of plasma. It didn’t look as though anyone had managed to get to the escape pods, Hoshiko noted; the ship had been lost with all hands. She swore under her breath as one of the alien ships exploded, followed rapidly by another; the third kept on towards Jackie Fisher, firing every weapon she had, until her shields were finally overloaded and a handful of missiles slammed into her hull, disabling her drives.

“Prepare a marine boarding party,” Hoshiko ordered. If the third ship had lost power completely, they should be able to teleport an assault force over to the enemy ship rather than dispatch a shuttle. “Get them suited up and …”

The third icon vanished from the display. “Enemy ship destroyed,” Biscoe reported. “That wasn’t our fire, Captain. They self-destructed.”

“Belay that order,” Hoshiko said. Judging from the blast, it was unlikely there would be anything worth recovering. The enemy ship had been completely atomised. “Ready a marine party to examine the freighter instead.”

She sucked in her breath, thinking hard. Who the hell were they facing? The Horde might have launched a suicide attack, but the Horde rarely dared face anyone who actually knew how to use their ships. God knew the Horde had been so criminally ignorant that a bunch of humans, from a low-tech world, had taken their ship out from under them. Anyone else … surely, they would have assessed the balance of power and backed off. If the freighters had been carrying criminals, she would have had no choice but to hand them over.

“Order the freighter to be ready to receive borders,” she said, grimly. At least she wasn’t bored any longer. “All ships are to remain on yellow alert until we get some answers.”

She glanced at Commander Wilde. “Accompany the marines,” she ordered. “I want to speak to Captain Ryman as soon as he’s cleared to board Fisher.”

“Aye, Captain,” Wilde said. He rose. “Ensign Howard, with me.”

Hoshiko felt a flicker of envy, which she rapidly suppressed. She was the Captain-Commodore of the squadron, as well as Jackie Fisher’s CO. There was no way she could leave the bridge, not when they might be at war. All she could do was wait and see what her crew found …

… And pray, silently, that she wouldn’t wind up wishing she was bored again.

Bonus Material: Whitehall History Essay Question

16 Oct

History Exam: A History Of Whitehall

Student Name: Frieda, Daughter of Huckeba

Year: 2nd

Class: History of Magic

Assignment: detail, as best as you are able, the founding of Whitehall School, with reference to both the primary and secondary sources.

The problem with writing any sort of history of Whitehall School is that the principle sources are often in disagreement over even the slightest matters. Life of Whitehall, for example, assets that Lord Whitehall was the sole founder of the school, with only a handful of others glimpsed, like shadows, through the pages of the work. A History of Magical Schooling, however, states that there were at least five masters who collectively founded Whitehall School; Times Whitehall, written by Bernard De Born, insists that Whitehall was assisted by two others, but he was still the principle founder of the school. Life of Bernard, although not a primary source for the period, states that Bernard was Whitehall’s apprentice and later successor as Grandmaster. He would not want to slur his master in print!

Secondary sources are, if anything, rather more confused. Faerie Tales draws heavily on Times Whitehall, but adds Lord Chamber and Lord Rufus, both of whom are not mentioned elsewhere. Mountaintop discusses the similarities between Whitehall and Mountaintop, yet it makes reference to a number of works that have clearly not survived the ages. Indeed, Castles Codex makes it clear that Whitehall Castle was in existence long before the school itself, while the records in Dragon’s Den insist that the town is only a ‘mere’ three hundred years old. The writer of Castles Codex makes a number of references to other works on the castle and school, but again they have not survived. Finally, the Lay of Lord Alfred is a fictionalised version of the tale, yet it is hard to take it seriously. Alfred, portrayed as a wise man, is depicted as the power behind the throne, very much the Grand Vizier, while Lord Whitehall is a good-hearted fool. This alone would not be enough to discredit the work, but the Lay makes reference to magics that are well beyond anything else known to be possible, then or ever. Alfred might have been capable of fooling mundanes into believing he could pluck the moon from the sky, yet how could he have hoped to deceive his fellow magicians?

Therefore, try as we might, we are left with few facts about the early years of Whitehall School. We are even left guessing as to the exact date. Life of Whitehall claims that the school was founded seven hundred years ago; Mountaintop assets that Whitehall is a bare hundred years older than Mountaintop, which would imply an age of four hundred years. Castles Codex states that the building itself is over a thousand years old, but does not say when it became a school.

It is clear, it seems, that Whitehall Castle was established several hundred years prior to the school and later abandoned, for reasons alone. The builders of the castle remain unknown – even Castles Codex doesn’t offer speculation, beyond the observation that a number of other castles were established around the same time. One story, repeated as fact in the Lay of Lord Alfred, claims that the builders disturbed something nasty sleeping below the school and had to leave in a hurry. An alternate explanation was that their attempts to harness the nexus point under Whitehall failed, triggering an outflow of raw magic that killed or transfigured everyone present in the castle. All that really matters is that the castle had been abandoned for quite some time before the Whitehall Commune arrived.

Oddly, most of the primary sources agree on the composition of the Whitehall Commune. In those days, a couple of masters would band together and take on a number of apprentices, who in turn would be followed by a handful of camp followers. These apprentices, always male (women were not taught magic in those days), would eventually take on apprentices of their own, after separating from their masters. The Whitehall Commune, however, was odd in that it had only five (or seven, depending on which source we believe) masters and over fifty apprentices (and a small army of camp followers). Life of Whitehall states that Whitehall took in a number of apprentices after their masters were killed and, in the absence of any other evidence, it seems plausible.

Whitehall himself is something of an enigma. He is reputed to have concluded a brilliant apprenticeship in his youth with a figure known as Myrddin the Sane, but frustratingly little else is known of this person or Whitehall’s early life. Life of Whitehall skips over so much detail that his earliest true appearance is his early forties, as leader of the commune. Just how he rose to that point and how many apprentices he took, save for Bernard De Born, is lost to time. The only other point known about him, from other sources, is that he was a strong opponent of the DemonMasters and a firm believer that the Black Arts should be unceremoniously banned for the good of all.

Whitehall was, apparently, the key figure in making the decision to head to Whitehall Castle (quite what the castle was known before then has also been lost to time) and did so under quite some opposition. The Lay of Lord Alfred, however, insists that Whitehall had to be talked into moving to Whitehall and taking the deserted castle for his own.

At this point, another mysterious figure enters the picture. The Dark Lady is mentioned in Times Whitehall and Life of Bernard, but is completely absent from both Life of Whitehall and Lay of Lord Alfred. Indeed, some researchers believe her to be mythical. So much about her is uncertain that it is impossible to say anything for sure. Times Whitehall states that she was Whitehall’s apprentice, the first female apprentice known to recorded history, while Life of Bernard insists that she was a fully-trained magician when the commune discovered her at the castle. If so, who trained her? She does appear in several stories passed down the years, mainly as Whitehall’s wife or love interest, but this doesn’t explain why she was schooled in magic. Female magicians, at the time, were expected to have as many children as possible, not spend their days studying magic.

It is generally agreed that Whitehall and his followers entered the castle and took control of the nexus point, giving birth to the Warden. What happened next, which was truly revolutionary, was the development of an actual school. Instead of very limited occupational training, they were given a wide range of lessons, studying the different branches of magic known to exist. This led, very quickly, to the development of early alchemy, attempts to tap the magical properties of the natural world. All sources agree that alchemy was developed at Whitehall; Life of Whitehall credits Whitehall himself with the discovery.

At this point, there was a major dispute within the larger magical community, such as it was in those days. Details are quite scarce. The only point that all of the sources agree upon is that a number of masters, probably including several DemonMasters, believed that Whitehall would create a patronage network of magicians that would rapidly eclipse the previous master-apprenticeship relationships. Life of Bernard, in the meanwhile, asserts that Bernard himself was targeted by envious rivals (notably, this claim is not repeated in Times Whitehall) who feared his growing power. Lay of Lord Alfred speaks ominously of dissent within the castle and several members of the commune who, if they did not turn against Whitehall, stood aside when the castle itself came under attack. Times Whitehall does add the suggestion that the attackers were motivated by misogyny, although, as Bernard was seemingly quite taken with the Dark Lady, it is unclear how reliable this statement actually is.

What is clear is that the castle came under attack and Whitehall defeated them. Precisely how he did this is lost to time; Times Whitehall asserts that he used the wards, far more powerful than any previously raised by human hands, to drive out the attackers. Life of Whitehall claims the attackers were all turned into pigs, which were then eaten at dinner, but such gruesome details are hopefully inaccurate.

Whitehall died shortly afterwards and was succeeded by Bernard De Born, who became the first Grandmaster. Whitehall may or may not have allowed girls to study magic (it isn’t clear just when girls were first permitted to study at the school) but Bernard did allow female students, although their studies were restricted for at least a century after the original decision was made until Healers were able to prevent death in childbirth.

Bernard was determined, in honour of his master, to overcome the need to study the Black Arts and funded hundreds of research programs into strengthening magic. Times Whitehall specifically states that Bernard was responsible for discovering that cross-breeding long-standing magician bloodlines with wild magicians made them stronger (Life of Bernard claims that Bernard himself fathered at least a dozen children on five or six separate mothers) while the first true alchemists developed ways to boost magic, at least for short periods. Lay of Lord Alfred includes long and vague sections that may be a reference to necromancy, but the first true necromancers were not recorded until the Second Faerie War.

It is impossible, in conclusion, to say with any certainty just what happened during the founding and early history of Whitehall School. The dating controversy alone makes it hard to say who was alive at the time, while a number of documents dating back to the founding are either deliberately slanted, make reference to other documents that are now lost or discuss events that, frustratingly, would be common knowledge at the time. However, I believe the above represents the best picture that can be put together at present.

Pushing an Allegory Too Far

16 Oct

A couple of posts popped up recently in my Facebook feed, asking the same question. Is Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame white? (See here and here.)

The writer of the first article notes, correctly, that ‘white’ is the default for characters in western novels. Hermione is never given a skin colour in the books, unlike clearly non-white characters, and ‘Hermione Granger’ is very much an upper middle class British name. Indeed, given what little we know about her parents (both professional dentists), they are almost certainly white upper middle class themselves. They are, in some ways, the kind of people Vernon and Petunia Dursley would like to be. We know very little else about the Grangers – they only appear in the books once – but what we hear from Hermione only confirms my first impression. Hermione’s own personality, for example, suggests she was given a great deal of autonomy from a very early age (not entirely a wise decision); there may even be a case to be made that she, like Ron and Harry, was neglected by her caretakers.

From this alone, we can be reasonably certain that Hermione is indeed white. But there is another aspect that needs to be exploded.

(Pic Source)

The Wizarding World is clearly neither racist nor sexist, at least in the conventional sense. We see at least one high-ranking black man in the series and the Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts is very definitely a women. No one shouts racial slurs at any of the non-white characters in the series. This actually makes a great deal of sense; magic, which binds their world together, clearly doesn’t discriminate between sex or race.

But it does have prejudices of its own. Specifically, prejudices against muggle-borns (magical children born of non-magical parents, like Hermione), squibs (muggles born of mages), werewolves and some other magical children and – finally, muggles (non-magical people). Having a white character like Hermione exposed to what is effectively racism is a shocker. If Hermione had been portrayed as black, from the start, it would have made the message weaker. Coming to think of it, if the prejudices had been brought into the open in book one, before Hermione became Ron and Harry’s friend, they might even have wound up agreeing with Draco. Hermione needed to be established in our minds as one of the good guys before she was faced with open racism.

There is, however, a deeper issue. Racism against black people purely for being black, for example, is never justified. Ask the average person if they should discriminate, purely on the grounds of skin colour, and they will probably say no. However, one should ask if the prejudices of the Wizarding World are wholly unjustified. Historically, muggles burnt witches and wizards. Refusing to allow muggle-borns to attend Hogwarts (which caused the schism between the four founders) might have been a reasonable attitude at the time – muggle-borns might just lead their parents to the school and ensure its destruction. Even in the time of the books, a thousand years after Hogwarts was founded, many muggles who learn of the magical world react badly (not always without good reason). Petunia and Tobias Snape both loathed the idea of having magical relatives, although Petunia may well have a reasonable excuse.

Werewolves, squibs (and Goblins, perhaps) represent another issue. They cannot help being what they are – that’s true – but their conditions carry implications that have to be addressed.

There are only two werewolves who play a major role in the books. One of them is pretty obviously a Child Predator, biting young children to turn them into werewolves themselves; the other, Remus Lupin, although a reasonably decent teacher, is staggeringly careless. Not only does he fail to take the potion that will allow him to control his condition, he failed to share vital information when a (supposed) mass murderer with a major grudge against Harry was on the loose. It is quite possible that Dumbledore summarily fired Lupin at the end of Book III (as he should have done) and blaming it on Snape, which Lupin does, doesn’t change the fact that Lupin was lucky to escape a charge of reckless endangerment.

Indeed, the prejudice against squibs may be the only truly irrational prejudice in the Wizarding World. Squibs cannot be blamed for their condition, nor do they represent a real or imaginary threat. Prejudices against squibs, alas, may be a representation of the horror many of us feel when confronted with the intensely disabled, or the mentally challenged. Worse, perhaps, squibs are ill-prepared to leave the Wizarding World and yet unable to live comfortably within it.

To portray Hermione as black would undermine any rational analysis of magical prejudices. It is easy to scream ‘racism’ when someone dislikes a black character or feels they’re not suited for a particular role.

But there is also a more personal issue. Hermione is a complex character in many ways – and yet that complexity seems to have slipped past most observers. She certainly is not the perfect good girl. Her early scenes show her flaws very clearly. She’s pushy when she meets Harry for the first time, telling him she’s read all about him; she’s putting herself forward to help Neville even though it isn’t clear Neville wants to be helped; she shows off her skills from the start, to the point of rubbing her success in Ron’s face. And she might well have lied too – using magic at home is forbidden, yet she was prepared to claim the spells she tried worked. Frankly, Hermione is one step away from becoming a bully.

Hermione doesn’t lose any of her flaws even after she befriends Harry and Ron, ending her self-inflicted isolation from her peers. She is often willing – far too willing – to take matters into her own hands. When Harry is sent the latest model of broomstick by an unknown person, Hermione reports it to the teachers, which results in the broom being confiscated for examination. From an adult point of view, Hermione did the right thing, but it didn’t seem to occur to her that Harry and Ron would feel otherwise. Later, in fifth year, Hermione puts a jinx to catch anyone who tries to betray the DA to Umbridge, a jinx that scars its victim for life. (It also ensures that any betrayal will immediately become public, rather than allowing her to deal with the betrayer quietly.) And while she is perfectly capable of rattling off romantic advice to Harry and Ginny, she is far less capable of applying it for herself. It’s clear from very early on that she’s interested in Ron, but she sends him some very mixed messages.

And then she effectively kidnaps and imprisons an adult witch and literally commits mind-rape when she wipes the memories of herself from her parents minds. By the end of the series, it’s hard not to escape the feeling that Hermione, like so many other characters in the books, is nothing more than a Designated Hero. It is a cause of some minor frustration that hardly anyone calls Hermione out on her actions, let alone holds her to account.

The core problem, I think, is that Hermione is an immigrant into a society that is so much like our own, on the surface, that we (and she) miss the differences. Throughout the books, we are confronted with evidence that the Wizarding World operates on very different principles to the mundane world, yet Hermione seems to miss them. It is absurd, for example, for a headmaster in our world to be, at the same time, Speaker of the House of Commons, but Dumbledore possesses both titles and a whole host of others. Hermione’s private crusade on behalf of House Elves seems to miss the fact that House Elves are not human, that they want to be appreciated rather than treated with condescending benevolence. Nor does it seem to occur to her that the interconnections between the different families would create problems; Umbridge has no difficulty whatsoever in finding someone who can be pressured to betray Dumbledore’s Army, simply because her mother worked in the ministry. This is particularly unforgivable on Hermione’s part because she knows, by this time, that Percy Weasley has publicly separated himself from his family, at least in part to prevent them from being used against them or vice versa.

Hermione is not, I think, particularly clever. She is capable of projecting a facade of cleverness – she admits it herself in book one – but she lacks the spark of genius showed by several other characters, most notably the young Snape. She has learned how to absorb and use knowledge, yet she never really adapts it for herself. The ‘half-blood prince’ modified potions recipes. Hermione objects heatedly to the mere idea of deviating from the script and is outraged when Harry, following the altered recipe, gets better results than her. And she is not particularly mature either. She tries to project an attitude adults will find acceptable, but she finds it far harder to get respect from her peers.

In the age of Social Justice Warriors, of people who whine and moan when a female character admits that she regrets being sterilised, having those flaws in a black character would probably be used to batter the author around the head, several times. Writers are trapped between the need to portray non-white characters positively – and, in doing so, create Mary Sues – and deliberately renouncing such needs, by creating non-white characters who are villains. It is a great deal harder to create a well-rounded character, a person who may be seen as good or bad, when one aspect comes to dominate the rest.

Hermione Granger is white because she has to be white. It’s the only way her role in her new world can be explored.

Updates (again)

16 Oct

Hi, everyone.

I finished up the first draft of Storm Front (Twilight of the Gods I) on Monday and it’s currently with the agent. Writing Storm Front was an interesting challenge, both because I wanted to develop the conditions for the Nazi Civil War and because I largely wanted to avoid serious military action for most of the book. (And because I had to present the mindset of people unlucky enough to grow up in Nazi Germany without making the good guys (at least) monsters.) It was a deliberate choice to put character-building over action and, I feel, it works fairly well.

The provisional titles for II and III are Chosen of the Valkyries and Ragnarok. I did think about calling the books Gotterdammerung, Fimbulvetr and Ragnarok, but I felt the allusion would confuse readers.

I spent Wednesday and Thursday editing and revising Wedding Hells. It’s an interesting experience – and a somewhat humiliating one. Having someone take a hard look at your work and point out its weaknesses is never easy, particularly as some of the changes have knock-on effects further down the manuscript. I’ve been blessed with good editors for the series – and my beta readers have been utterly invaluable – but having to take a manuscript apart is often unpleasant.

Not that I’m complaining (much). Being editor-proof is, in some ways, the peak of a writer’s career – because they tend to go downhill sharply once they reach those ratified heights. Having someone point to a potential problem and tell you to think about it is very useful, even if you disagree with them. At the very least, you know it’s a potential problem when you start.

The next project is The Black Sheep, which will be book III of A Learning Experience. After that, I think it’s high time I concluded The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire.

In other news, Eric is moving steadily onto ‘solid’ (more like sloppy) food. Watching him eye daddy with horror as I prepare his breakfast is amusing, though he hasn’t quite mastered the idea of drinking from a sippy cup yet. So far, the only thing we’ve found he won’t eat is fruit – clearly, he hasn’t inherited much of his dad’s pickiness. <grin>


Review: The Exasperating Case of David Weber, or The Slow Death of the Honorverse

15 Oct

-John Lennard

It should be noted, from the start, that literary criticism is not fan fiction. Fan fiction involves writing stories using characters and universes created by a particular author, while literary criticism involves analysing the works of a particular author. Personally, I have always been sceptical of the value of literary criticism. While any decent author knows the value of a good critic, literary critics tend to be hampered by a belief they should criticise, rather than attempting to form a balanced judgement.

There is an additional problem with The Exasperating Case of David Weber. The literary critic in question is also, apparently, a fan fiction writer. This alone wouldn’t disqualify anyone from writing a piece of literary criticism, but it tends to raise red flags when the author in question, David Weber, has flatly refused to authorise any fan fiction set within his universes. This is not an unwise position. It was possible to guess just where the Honorverse was going, just by reading the early books. (For example, the love triangle that pops up in the later books (more on this below) and its possible resolutions was discussed endlessly on Baen’s Bar before it became canon.) A capable fan fiction writer might be able to make some pretty good guesses, write a fan fiction based on them … and then sue David Weber for stealing his ideas. It is for that reason that many professional authors tend to be nervous around fan fiction. His request that his works are not used as fertile ground for fan fiction should be honoured (pardon the pun). There are, after all, no shortage of universes where the original author tolerates or actively encourages fan fiction.

Having read the book, I find myself with mixed feelings.

Some of John Lennard’s observations are right on the money. The Honorverse has expanded rapidly, perhaps too rapidly, after War of Honour. The development of two spin-off universes (Eric Flint’s Crown of Slaves and its sequels, David Weber’s Shadow series) has made it harder, much harder, for a reader to remain engaged, while a number of short story collections have only added to the problem. (Timothy Zahn’s Manticore Ascendant novels and the young adult treecat series, being set centuries prior to On Basilisk Station, probably shouldn’t be included.) This probably wouldn’t be a problem, if readers didn’t have to read those books to follow events in the mainline books. A number of characters who become significant, later on, are introduced in the short stories.

This has both slowed down the overall plot dramatically while sharply expanding the number of viewpoint characters. While each of the original books (On Basilisk Station to At All Costs) advanced the overall plot as well as the localised, personal, plot, the post-AAC books have slowed to a crawl. That this is hampering the series is unarguable. Just what effect it is having on sales, however, is harder to say. Lennard assets that sales have been falling, but provides no proof beyond anecdotal evidence.

However, some of his other observations are a little odd, to say the least.

David Weber does have a problem with infodumps. There are no shortage of places within the books where the action stops long enough for the author to tell the reader, in precise detail, just how a newfangled weapons system actually works (not to mention the political infodumps that pervade the text). Even long-term readers such as myself have a habit of skimming over those infodumps, or wishing they were relegated to ‘factual’ sections at the rear of the book. However, John Lennard also wishes more details on matters of interest to him, creating the odd contradiction between a demand for fewer infodumps and, at the same time, a demand for more of them.

This is perhaps clearest in the eventual disposition of the North Hollow Files (a collection of blackmail material gathered by the North Hollow family, which includes Pavel Young). The collection cast a long shadow over the series since it was first introduced in Field of Dishonour until it was destroyed in War of Honour. They serve as nothing more than a MacGuffin, but John Lennard would like to know the long-term consequences of their destruction. So would I, but it isn’t really important to the overall story (and probably best left to one of the Pearls Of Weber posts).

This leads, it should be noted, to another issue. Lennard takes issue with the decision to allow Countess Young to escape to Beowulf, in exchange for the destruction of the files, instead of attempting to punish her for her crimes. One may feel, from an objective point of view, that she deserved punishment, but trying to punish her would almost certainly have unleashed a political storm. She was, after all, keeper of the North Hollow files. Better to make a deal and stick to it rather than risk a disaster.

The author discusses, in addition, the confused relationship between Harrington herself, Admiral White Haven and his wife, Emily Alexander. (It should be noted that Weber correctly foresaw the public-shaming stunts caused by social media, even though (as of the book in question, the relationship had not begun.) It is not the most innocent of love affairs – Lennard goes so far as to imply it’s a soppy ‘one true love’ story – but it isn’t wholly unrealistic. Plenty of people have managed to get themselves into trouble by falling in love with someone who is already married, or while being married themselves. One may feel that the first burst of attraction between Harrington and White Haven is unrealistic, but the sudden recognition that the person facing you is attractive is … well, part of human nature.

Here, the author misses a chance for some more substantive criticism. Having been accused of adultery in War of Honour (and committed against one of the Star Kingdom’s most beloved actresses, no less), one might expect some raised eyebrows after Harrington actually joins White Haven and Emily in marital bliss. Even on Grayson, the implications are far wider than Harrington (a noblewoman) becoming the junior wife of foreign nobleman. The proof of naked adultery is there for everyone to see. There should be more substantial repercussions, including from people who might otherwise be on her side, than we see in the text. Nor does Weber really explore the social implications of doubling or tripling the human life span or correcting the genetic flaw that ensures that Grayson women outnumber men four to one. (Although, again, that probably comes under infodumping.)

Lennard asserts, particularly in the scenes involving the incredibly stupid SLN, that such stupidity is unrealistic, that no state could possibly refuse to believe in new weapons that render its entire navy so much scrap metal – and that Weber protests too much by stepping back from the story to explain such stupidity. However, such stupidity is a function both of the limitations of the setting (a point Lennard discusses earlier in his work) and the sheer ossification created when bureaucracies are allowed to grow out of control. The Chinese state that fought the Opium War, for example, truly was unable to comprehend the sheer power of the ‘barbarians,’ while the Japanese experience in the Russo-Japanese War (which provided a template for the trench warfare of 1914-18) was largely ignored by many in the west. Weber, given a choice between justifying it and leaving it open to the critics, chose to justify it. I don’t think it was a bad choice.

On the micro scale, meanwhile, it is important to remember that characters in a novel lack the information available to us, the readers. Weber therefore needs to explain a stupid decision – overlooking Nimitz, for example – as we know the cat is extremely dangerous. One might argue that this isn’t always done well, but it has to be done. The limitations of the format demand it.

Baen’s editor also comes under heavy fire. Quite apart from the slow advance of the plot (and various minor errors), Baen is taken to task for allowing Weber to literally reprint sections from one book in another. On one hand, the author has a point; this is annoying, particularly when it fills no substantial role. However, he takes it too far; many of these sections have to be reused because of the limitations of the format. Weber, again, had a choice between putting the same scene in two books or leaving it out of one, even though it would annoy readers who would then see the disconnect. I think it would have worked better if the various sub-series books were completely separate from the mainstream books, or if the scenes were rewritten to show a different point of view, but given the decision to allow them to intertwine, Weber probably had no choice.

A good editor can offer suggestions, but he or she will also know when to let the writer have his head. One may question the value of some of the twists and turns in the series, yet very few decisions are praised by everyone. The idea that Baen should have vetoed any given shift in the plotline undermines the more practical editing issues – the massive infodumps, the slow progression towards an ending, the problem of finding a meaningful role for a main character who has simply risen too high, as Weber himself put it, to go on death rides any longer. It might well have been better if the series had had a time-skip after At All Costs, which would have allowed the next generation to reach adulthood and made the MAlign a more plausible enemy. But that was Weber’s call to make.

That is not the only point where Baen is attacked directly. Weber may well have reached the hallowed – and feared – point where he is editor-proof. A stronger editor might well have streamlined the books, making it easier to please the fans. (Lennard also claims that Weber published the Safehold series through Tor because he had a dispute with Baen (perhaps over concluding some of the open series), but from what I heard, Baen simply didn’t have the slots to publish additional Weber books and Jim Baen himself helped arrange the deal with Tor.) However, Baen has good reason to want as many Weber books as possible – they sell. One cannot blame Baen for wanting to get as much as possible out of a successful series.

However, a worse problem, in Lennard’s view, is that of politics.

Baen has an unfair reputation as a right-wing publishing house (a glance at the politics of both Eric Flint and Lois McMaster Bujold, as Lennard notes, should put the lie to that) when, in reality, Baen goes looking for a good story over the author’s personal politics. Lennard asserts that David Weber is guilty of inserting his own politics into his works, ranging from the ‘caricature’ of the Republic of Haven’s Legislates to ‘damnations’ of eco-nuts, techno-illiterates and pre-space Greens. Such charges have little justification in the Honorverse. The characters in the series have ample reason to know that such policies are stupid at best and dangerously insane at worst. The founders of Grayson, who intended to set up a tech-free paradise and found themselves forced to rely on the demon technology to survive, serve as salutary examples for the universe’s inhabitants. How Weber feels personally about such issues in the real world is beyond my ken and, quite frankly, his fiction writings should not be taken to serve as an indicator of his politics. There are, quite simply, too many different types of government in this universe alone.

Furthermore, history is replete with examples of stupid decisions made by governments for domestic policy reasons. Bush41’s decision to allow the Iraqi Army to escape Kuwait in 1991 ensured that Saddam would survive and retain power until 2003. Obama’s decision to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq in 2010 ensured that the gains in Iraq, bought at a huge cost in blood and treasure, were simply thrown away. One can question the wisdom of these decisions, but it cannot be denied that they – and many more – were made by people who were confident they would not be made to pay for their decisions. The High Ridge Government of War of Honour was equally convinced of its own security, that Manticore would retain a decisive military superiority for the foreseeable future.

Lennard goes on to note that the insertion of ‘American’ politics into books sold internationally is harming non-US sales. Speaking as a British reader, I haven’t stopped reading David Weber (or John Ringo, Tom Kratman, etc) because of ‘American’ politics being inserted into the books. (I do not know if politics are important, but if my experience is any guide, America is certainly the largest single market for Weber and Baen Books by a very long shot.) He then goes on to slam the ‘Sad Puppies’ as a ‘campaign to game Hugo nominations with an aggressively anti-left agenda’ and asserts that ‘authors hoping to be taken seriously across the political spectrum might think very hard about seeking publication by a house saddled by such a reputation.’ I think I speak for most authors when I say that publication by Baen Books, which has a reputation for treating authors as human beings, would be a dream come true.

Nor do most readers really care who publishes the books. Baen, in fact, is about the only science-fiction publishing house with, in my opinion, a firm track record of picking winners, authors I actually like. But this is getting away from the point of this work. David Weber was not, I believe, a Sad Puppy. Even if he had been, the wider issue of politics in SF (which is given a very slanted view) is immaterial to a book focused on literary criticism.

And, as a work of literary criticism, this book simply tries too hard.

Many of the points Lennard raises are good ones. The hodgepodge that is Storm From The Shadows, Mission of Honour, A Rising Thunder and Shadow of Freedom, to say nothing of Caldron of Shadows is a chain of events that really should have been condensed down to two volumes at most. Excessive infodumping causes readers to just skim over large parts of the book; contrived coincidences, like Harrington’s pregnancy and the death of Giancola in At All Costs, stretch credulity to breaking point.

However, some of his other points are quite poor. David Weber is well within his rights to determine how his universe functions. He is also within his rights to determine problems for the characters to solve (who wants to read a book where nothing actually happens?) and to allow them to experience a growth pattern that ensures, for example, that a character who is sexually repressed in the first published volume has no less than two reasonably satisfactory romances by the sixteenth. Furthermore, the relationship between Harrington and her mother is not as odd as Lennard suggests. My reading of the relationship, at least in the early books, is that Alison Harrington was never quite sure how to approach her daughter, while Harrington herself felt overshadowed by her mother. (Shades of the relationship between Deanna Troi and her overbearing mother come to mind, but Lwaxana Troi has the advantage of being telepathic, which Alison Harrington lacks.) By the time of Ashes of Victory and onwards, the relationship has definitely improved as Harrington matured emotionally as well as physically.

Leaving Weber aside for a moment, bringing the Sad Puppies (and politics in general) into the book was a bad move, as was a honest-to-god assertion that Weber’s increasingly large volumes represent a cost in trees! I have no idea if Baen ensures its paper comes from ecologically-managed sources or not either, but what does that have to do with David Weber?

He also misses a number of chances for genuine literary criticism. Giancola’s death, for example, represents a huge missed opportunity, at least for character development. So too does the assertion, at the end of Crown of Slaves, that the ex-slaves need a monarch, as states built by former slaves have always failed (this may have been Eric Flint’s work, but Weber’s name is on the book). This attitude could have been challenged, even unsuccessfully – and really should have been challenged. Finally, there is a strong tendency in almost all of Weber’s work for the ‘good’ bad guys to eventually join the ‘good’ good guys. Weber has yet to create a sympathetic bad guy who remains bad. There is no Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Honorverse.

Overall, this is an interesting read. But in its attempts to focus on the weaknesses of Weber’s work, it dampens its overall message.

The Bookworm and the Angry Man: Deconstructing Elaine and Johan

4 Oct

One reader, after finishing the draft of Full Circle, commented that the Bookworm series had been a rehearsal for Schooled In Magic and that Elaine was an early version of Emily. I disagreed with the assertion at the time and I still do. In many ways, the ethos of the two universes are quite different and Elaine and Emily are very unalike. I deconstructed Emily earlier, so I thought – in honour of the final book – that I might as well deconstruct the core characters of Bookworm.

Elaine grew up in an orphanage; she was, quite literally, found on the steps. (This was unfortunately quite common in the past; unwanted children would be passed to orphanages almost as soon as they were born.) Like pretty much every other child who grows up in a community with dozens of children and relatively few adults, Elaine suffered from a lack of attention; she learned rapidly not to expect much, if anything, from life. This trait was only made stronger when she went to the Peerless School; she was pretty much on the bottom rung, so weak she could barely be called a magician, and she had no reason to expect she could rise. Unlike a counterpart of Hermione Granger, who could reasonably turn talent into a career even without connections, Elaine knew she was going nowhere.

Her early life shaped the development of a personality that could best be called unambitious. Starved of attention, she turned to books; she found a job at the level she felt she could handle and dived into it. She was friendly, naturally, but she respected the privacy of everyone around her to an unhealthy degree. (She never realised that Daria was a werewolf until midway through Bookworm.) Again, this came from the orphanage; orphans, trapped in close proximity, learn rapidly to treasure what privacy they have. Elaine never held any great ambitions; indeed, the best she felt she could hope for was a quiet life.

This changed, a little, after she became the Bookworm. She believed, with good reason, that her days had become numbered; the knowledge in her head made her a danger to the state and it was quite likely she’d be killed out of hand (or exploited) if anyone found out what she’d become. Her behaviour became a little wilder, particularly when she started using the knowledge herself; she even thrust herself forward into a brief love affair because she believed she had nothing to lose. Defeating Kane – and discovering her father’s identity – undermined her new personality, however, because she was going to live. She pretty much reverted back to type, although being given the post of Head Librarian made it harder for her to bury herself in her shell.

In one sense, Elaine is a solid personality. (I’d actually say, in many ways, that she’s a great deal more mature than Emily.) She may not be ambitious, but she isn’t unstable either; she rarely loses her temper, even when pressed to the limit. Given time to think and plan, she’s actually quite hard to beat; when she’s taken prisoner twice in the later books, she breaks free rather than wait for someone to rescue her. She’s motivated, in many ways, by duty; she takes little joy in her work (particularly the bits that involve working with people), but she does her best to carry out her responsibilities.

(Light Spinner understood this weakness very well. Part of the reason she appointed Elaine to her Privy Council was to try and encourage Elaine to engage with men and women of considerable influence. She trusted Elaine not to develop an agenda of her own.)

The part of her life that Elaine does enjoy is figuring out how to produce new spells. It was something she couldn’t study at the Peerless School because she lacked the raw power to actually do something with her talent. Gaining a unique insight into how magic actually worked (in essence, learning how to program HTML directly instead of through an editor) did wonders for her self-confidence. Where she ended, in the series, is where she wanted to be, except she didn’t know it.

And so we come to Johan.

Elaine is solid; Johan veers between near-adulthood and a childlike mentality more suited to someone half his age (he’s 17 as of The Very Ugly Duckling.) He can be calm and understanding one moment and raging in fury the next. He’s the sort of unbalanced personality that most of us would regard as dangerous even without magic. And his personality, too, was shaped by his early life.

Johan of House Conidian was the second child of parents with staggering magical (hence political) power. However, unlike his six siblings, Johan was (seemingly) born without any sort of magic. He could not hope to defend himself against mistreatment from his family; his mere existence, in many ways, was an embarrassment. Powerless children are generally killed by their own families – the reason for this is discussed in Full Circle – and his elder brother made it clear to Johan that, one day, his own family would probably kill him. (Johan had good reason to believe that Jamal, when he became the Conidian, would make erasing Johan from the family’s history his first priority.) Johan grew up in a nightmarish position that only grew worse as he aged.

For one thing, he was effectively a prisoner; he was rarely allowed past the grounds (when they were living on the estate) and the doors, when they were living in the Golden City. For another, he was his sibling’s favourite test subject for the jinxes, hexes, curses and other general nastiness. Johan was the ultimate bullying victim – the one who might rant and rave, but could never hope to fight back. Imagine yourself the third son of Superman and Wonder Woman, born without powers. Your life would suck even if your siblings didn’t think it was a good idea to fly you up so high you couldn’t breathe and drop you.

Making it worse, perhaps, was the awareness he could have a good life, if only he could get away from his siblings. Unlike Elaine, Johan does have drive; he could have joined the engineering crews building the Iron Dragons, joined a merchant skipper’s crew, become a soldier … he could have done anything, provided it required no magic. Yet he is alternatively treated as a chew toy or a cripple, either bullied or regarded as a mental defective. Johan’s main objective is to get the hell away from his family. Can you blame him?

There’s also, to a very great extent, a considerable degree of sexual frustration. Johan knows – no one made any attempt to hide it from him – that Jamal is fond of having his way with the family’s maids – and the maids are quite willing to service him, on the (probably wrong) assumption that sleeping with the young master will be good for their careers. They don’t, however, put out for Johan. His isolation and exclusion from the rest of his family is easy to see and none of the maids want to risk the anger of the rest of the family by reaching out to him. Like all teenage boys, Johan wants sex (and has the same issues about not quite understanding what he wants) and is denied it. This is bad enough in the real world; it’s worse when one feels one is being denied because of someone one can’t control.

This doesn’t make Johan look very good, from our point of view. Unfortunately, it’s also realistic.

Finally, perhaps, Johan had no way to displace his feelings.

Displacement may or may not be a psychological term (I am not a psychologist). It occurs when the victim becomes the victimiser – but only when the victim takes it out on someone (or something) who is actually innocent. The brother, bullied at school, beats up his little brother; the husband, told off by the manager at work, takes it out on his wife when he gets home. This is neither healthy nor decent behaviour, but it is understandable; primal therapy attempts to come to grips with the core problem by encouraging the victim to vent. Johan could neither take his feelings out on the people responsible for his misery or pass them on to someone else.

[The only way to explain how Vernon and Petunia Dursley treated Harry Potter throughout the Harry Potter series is to assume that they’re displacing their helplessness onto Harry, even though Harry bears no responsibility for their problems. By any reasonable standard, their conduct is both evil and insane; they’re definitely abusive to Harry and spoil Dudley rotten. This makes sense if one realises that they feel helpless to escape their true tormentors – Dumbledore and the magical world.]

So, Johan has anger issues. Actually, that is something of an understatement. By the time we first meet Johan, much of his anger has been buried under tight self-control. Like several other bullying victims, Johan tried hard to suppress his own feelings. To a very large extent, he succeeded; he has far better self-control than many other people. What he didn’t do was come to terms with his feelings, which he would have needed to do in order to lay them to rest permanently. Every so often, that veneer of control would crack.

And then he develops his powers.

Johan’s reaction to this is surprisingly muted. Some readers have commented that he misses obvious solutions to his problems; simply put, he isn’t used to using magic. He may have escaped the worst of the ‘learned helplessness’ condition, but he still doesn’t grasp that he can use magic now. His sole goal is still to escape his family; he clings to Elaine and hides in the Great Library because he is so obsessed with one goal that he cannot conceive of any others.

Elaine is, in many ways, the perfect person to handle Johan. She does empathise with his condition (as a very weak magician, she understands his frustration) and, at the same time, she isn’t overbearing or threatening. Johan doesn’t cringe away from her, nor does he puff up and try to fight. Elaine’s solid personality provides the stability Johan desperately needs. As she was the first person to show him any real kindness, he probably devotes himself to her a long time before he falls in love with her.

And then his family starts trying to lure him back into their clutches.

Johan is torn between the desire not to have anything to do with his relatives and the prospect for lording it over them. His inclination to lash out at them – accidentally turning Charity into a rat – is mixed with an understandable fear that his newfound magic will vanish, leaving him as weak and vulnerable as before. Their meddling in his life – including an attempt to organise his marriage – only makes him hate them more. And yet, he still has problems comprehending just how much the community is beginning to fear him.

It isn’t impossible to strip someone of their magic, but for a single magician to do it … Johan, in his attempt to protect and avenge Elaine against a Dark Wizard, terrified everyone. (For Johan, attacking magic is attacking what made his family so much more powerful than him.)

And then Jamal almost kills Elaine.

Johan, believing Elaine to be dead, loses it completely at this point; he lashes out at his brother, rendering him powerless (correctly judging this would be a fate worse than death) and attacks Conidian House itself, depowering his father and ripping the family’s reputation to shreds. If Elaine hadn’t talked him down, it is likely he would have done a great deal more damage. As it was, Elaine saw to it that everyone believed Johan had died and made plans to leave the city with him. This pretty much cemented Johan’s loyalty to her.

It’s important to note that Johan is actually much more respectful of the Levellers than almost everyone else in the series. Johan would probably have joined, if he’d been given a chance; he certainly recognises their value and the simple truth that one doesn’t need magic to be dangerous. In one sense, at least, Johan is capable of showing empathy for others, something that prevents him from becoming a monster.

Johan matures considerably over the final two books in the series. Having to deal with a coup in the Golden City (and escaping the Emperor) helps, but so does the slow process of coming to terms with his powers. He is unable to resist the temptation to be unpleasant to his younger sisters – who view him as a terrifying danger, after he tore the house apart – yet he realises he’s acting badly after Cass, who he’d come to respect, pointed it out in a post-mortem letter.

Of all the characters in the series, I would argue that Johan was the only one who got what he actually wanted. Becoming an engineer, finding ways to do things without magic, may seem odd, but his perspective is different. Johan will always be a little scared of his powers, a little reluctant to depend on them; technology, primitive as it is at that point in time, offers scope for something more. He never wanted to become Grand Sorcerer, or Family Head, or any other title. All he wanted was to carve a life out for himself.

You could say this is a small aim, if you like, but aims don’t have to be big. <grin>

Out Now – Bookworm IV – Full Circle!

3 Oct

A new Emperor has arisen … and the Empire is collapsing into chaos.

Having escaped from the Golden City, Elaine, Johan and their friends – including some strange allies with goals of their own – race desperately towards Ida, hiding place of the ancient Witch-King. Behind them, the armies of the new Emperor – a man permanently poised on the verge of madness – give chase, unleashing monsters and spells from the long-buried past on everyone who stands in their way. Ahead of them, the Witch-King waits, biding his time as he prepares for his ascension.

As they endure terrible dangers – and figures from the past – Elaine and Johan come to realise that Elaine’s knowledge of magic and the bond between them may be the only thing standing between the Witch-King and godhood. But if they cannot prepare a defence in time, the entire world will die when the Witch-King rises from his tomb …

The fourth and final instalment in the Bookworm series, Full Circle follows on immediately from the events in The Best Laid Plans, with Elaine and her friends heading for Ida to confront the Witch-King.  Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase the complete book from the links on this page!