Archive | September, 2016

Religion In The Nameless World

29 Sep

Another expository post, for SIM 12.

The Nameless World is quite definitely pagan in how it approaches religion. Instead of a monotheistic religion, it is generally believed that there are entire multitudes of gods and godly families. Indeed, it is agreed that certain gods are actually the same god, but called by different names. (Like Mars and Ares, both Gods of War.) Therefore, despite the vast number of religions and sects, there is actually surprisingly little religious conflict.

Gods are generally divided into three different categories. The Great Gods represent aspects of the physical and spiritual worlds, such as health, war and farming. The Loci Gods represent particular locations and are rarely worshipped outside it. The Household Gods represent a specific household. It is generally considered polite, when entering a city or a home, to visit the temple and pay your respects to the city’s god, even if you are not staying.

(There is some debate over the exact nature of the Household Gods. Some people believe they’re the souls of the family’s ancestors, while others believe they’re actually newborn gods.)

It is important to realise that the vast majority of worshippers believe in the gods, even if they don’t worship them. One is not expected to worship any god – or worship at all, if one chooses – but it is generally considered unwise to deliberately insult a god. Another person’s rites or rituals may seem odd, yet that doesn’t make them invalid. Tolerating other rites is considered good manners.

The vast majority of people will pay their respects to a multitude of gods throughout their lives. However, a number choose to dedicate themselves to one particular god – almost always one of the Great Gods – and never worship any other. These people are devotees (dedicated followers), initiates (junior cultists) and priests (senior cultists).

Unsurprisingly, the majority of religions are effectively cults and operate accordingly. Most of them try to find something unique, something exclusive – and often secret – to draw in new and significant worshippers. A small cult may be quite sincere; a larger cult, which may draw in thousands of worshippers, may be run more as a racket than anything else. Devotees are expected to make contributions, for example; initiates often turn over their possessions to the cult. (A number of cults are really astonishingly rich.) Cults also find ways to fleece outsiders – a number of cults operate a sacred prostitution service disguised as a fertility rite, for example; others sell prayers and blessings to those who are prepared to pay.

The general attitudes of outsiders towards specific cults can vary widely. Some cults – the Harvest Goddess followers – are regarded as largely harmless. Others, including the Blood Worshippers or the Crone’s followers, are regarded with considerable suspicion. There are no shortage of rumours surrounding their innermost mysteries and rituals, most of which are exaggerated. Parents tend to get annoyed when their adolescent children rebel by joining some of the more harmful cults. They feel that the rites and rituals serve as an excuse to engage in forbidden practices. They are not wrong.

It is unusual for a government to interfere in religious matters, provided that religious teachings do not threaten public order. Most religious cults don’t attempt to encourage their worshippers to question authority, let alone stand up to their rulers. Those that do are targeted for extermination. Rumours of their presence can unleash a – sometimes literal – witch-hunt.

The Military In The Nameless World – A Very Brief Overview

28 Sep

Just an expository post for SIM 11.

There is no unified military service in the Allied Lands. The White Council does attempt to appoint leaders to joint military campaigns – Mediators or Knights of the Allied Lands – but the various kingdoms are reluctant to place their military contributions under someone else’s control. Very few personages have the fame necessary to issue orders to a multinational force, ensuring that personal grudges and dislikes can affect the course of military operations. This tends to ensure that most military forces deployed by the Allied Lands appear somewhat ramshackle. Indeed, even ‘regiment’ and other military terms can mean different things to different kingdoms.

Generally, military units are raised by kings or trusted noblemen, with the latter often commanding their regiments in person. (City-states sometimes raise additional City Guard units, but it’s very rare for them to serve outside their cities.) During peacetime, the kings often maintain small armies, but tend to frown on noblemen having more than a handful of men under their banners. Sellswords (mercenaries) are fairly common, yet they are often frowned upon outside wartime.

The non-magical military in the Nameless World is generally divided into the following categories: infantry, cavalry, archers and (now) firearms.

The infantry is normally raised through conscription, with the soldiers given a choice between joining the army or facing punishment. (It isn’t uncommon for criminals to be offered a chance to serve instead of jail or execution.) Training is harsh and discipline is brutal, but a skilled soldier who gains notice can rise in the ranks. It is quite uncommon for a commoner soldier to reach commissioned status, yet a decent commanding officer knows to pay attention to his sergeants. The infantry serves to take and hold ground.

By contrast, the vast majority of the cavalry consists of lesser nobility, who can afford their own horse and supplies. They are often considered flamboyant show-offs by the infantry as they often prance around the battlefield in colourful armour. The cavalry is generally used to scout out enemy positions, carry messages around the battlefield and, on rare occasions, charge enemy forces. (This is considered grossly unwise.)

Archers (a term which includes field artillery) are normally drawn from freeholders who are supposed to practice weekly with a longbow and arrows. Their task is to rain arrows down on enemy forces and, when attacking a castle, to bombard it into submission with catapults and other bombardment weapons.

Firearms, a relatively new innovation on the Nameless World, consist of muskets and makeshift cannons. In theory, only kings are allowed to possess and use gunpowder; in practice, the secret is out and spreading. No one is quite sure how to use a firearms unit in combat, but they’re experimenting to find out what works. Most firearms soldiers are drawn from the middle classes.

There is no overall commissary for logistics, communications or healthcare, despite the best efforts of the White Council. Commanding officers are normally responsible for taking care of their men, with the authority and funds to purchase supplies from merchants and distribute them to the soldiers. (Or steal the money, which has been known to happen.) Nor is there any logistics chain in the modern sense. Blacksmiths and other workers are often attached to military units as camp-followers (along with washerwomen and prostitutes), but this happens on an ad hoc basis.

Medical care is often hit-or-miss. While Healers are normally attached to the army, the average infantryman is rarely able to pay their fees. They are normally dependent on chirurgeons (doctors) who are rarely able to save badly-wounded men. An injured soldier might simply be pensioned off and told to make his own way home.

Unsurprisingly, military units within the Nameless World are often a mixed bag. Units that have good commanding officers (almost always a nobleman) and a working staff tend to do very well; units that have poor or corrupt officers rarely survive their first challenge. Mutiny is relatively rare – it is punished by decimation, when crushed – but desertion is alarmingly common. Indeed, the vast majority of sellswords consist of soldiers who were either paid off by their commanders or simply deserted.

A Plea For Maturity

27 Sep

Many years ago, maybe not quite when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, I threw a tantrum over something. If I recall the details correctly, there was a good chance I’d be fed something I couldn’t eat (and, for various reasons, this wasn’t something I could share). I still cringe at the memory of emotions welling up inside me, to the point where I couldn’t think clearly, let alone rationally.

I was, in short, an immature brat.


The point, or at least part of the point, is that I would probably have gotten what I wanted without throwing a tantrum, if I had managed to explain the problem. But I recall thinking that there was no point in explaining the problem. Either it wouldn’t be taken seriously (a valid concern) or it would be used against me (another valid concern). And so I disgraced myself.

I find, as I grow older, that I have less and less patience for ‘silliness.’ I have never been the sort of person who is amused by constant pratfalls. Indeed, I have learned to loathe characters whose entire lives consist of nothing, but pratfalls. The Black Adder (only the first series), Mr. Bean, early Mickey Smith (although he got much better) and that geeky guy from Supergirl … you know, the characters whose sole role is to either make someone else look better or provide comic relief.

Now, having read this far, you may be wondering about my point.

When you are a child, the smallest thing may seem like the end of the world. You have an ice lolly – the boy next to you has a chocolate ice cream. It’s not fair! It’s the end of the world! And when you are a teenager, you wail and moan and write bad poetry because you think being rejected by the hot girl/boy is the end of the world. Most teenage romance novels are appallingly cringe-worthy for the very simple reason that most teenage romance is cringe-worthy. It’s pretty much the equivalent to taking a pratfall with every second step.

Maturity is learning that not everything is the end of the world.

A mature person can recognise that accidents happen. Of course they do. And sometimes, no one is genuinely at fault. Or that someone had a slip of the tongue. Or someone merely expressed something badly. And someone may not mean to be offensive when they seem offensive.

The thing is, making a big song and dance – or throwing a tantrum – about some perceived ‘microaggression’ just smacks of silliness. A ‘microaggression’ is something so small, so tiny, that it can pass unnoticed, unless someone makes a fuss about it. But the mere act of making a fuss makes them seem like immature little brats. If Bob asks Li Han for her help with his math problems, is he recognising that she’s the brightest person in math class, trying to find an excuse to be with a pretty girl … or jumping to the conclusion that Han is good at math because she’s Asian? (As opposed to, say, her having spent time actually doing her work instead of goofing off.) What do you honestly think the answer actually is?

My name has been mispronounced (and made fun of) more times than I care to admit. It’s something I’ve learned to live with, simply because most people who mispronounce it do so accidentally. I can correct them if they do and then move on. But apparently, mispronouncing someone’s name is now considered a microaggression.


A mature person would recognise that not everyone can parse out the correct pronunciation from a written word. And anyone who came to me whining about how their college professor had mispronounced their name would get short shrift.

Apparently, writing a character from a different culture is now considered ‘cultural appropriation.’ What utter nonsense! I am not a Space Marine, any more than I am a teenage sorceress or an alien. There are no space marines, teenage sorceresses or aliens. Does that mean I shouldn’t write about them? Coming to think of it, should JK Rowling not write about teenage boys because she’s a woman? And writing a character from a genuine culture, done properly, is telling the world about that culture (for better or worse.)

The silliness in the recent ‘tempest in a teacup’ is astonishing. A white man writing about a black girl from Nigeria does not prevent a black girl from Nigeria writing about her own life and times. And if that white man is prevented from writing about that girl, it does not automatically follow that the black girl will have her own shot at getting published. The idea that it does shows a lack of understanding of the publishing world.

A mature person could read the book, then address the character. Someone could say, quite easily, that the character isn’t remotely genuine. Someone could even try to do a better job themselves. But that requires actual maturity.

Here’s a question. My wife, son and I were in Malaysia a few months. During one of the days following Ramadan, my Malaysian wife insisted that we all wore Malaysian clothes.

So tell me. Am I committing cultural appropriation by wearing Malaysian clothes? Or is my wife committing cultural imperialism by insisting that we wear them? And my son … being mixed-race, should he wear British trousers and Malaysian shirts? Or vice versa?

A mature person wouldn’t even try to raise the question. And realistically, I wouldn’t be impressed by anyone who did.

There is a strong difference between reasoned criticism and throwing a tantrum if you don’t get your way. And I find it impossible to respect someone who feels more inclined to do the former than the latter, just as I find it impossible to respect someone who made a habit of complaining about tiny little ‘microaggressions.’

And every time some special snowflake throws a fit about someone so minor it doesn’t even register, genuine issues get buried beneath a mountain of silliness. And everyone they target grows to hate them. And everyone else decides to ignore the silly little cry-bullies. No one takes them seriously.  And why should they?


Our society doesn’t need trigger warnings or microaggressions or invented academic terms that serve to confuse people. What it needs is maturity. It needs adults.


26 Sep


Hi, everyone.

First, this is my (very rough) schedule for HONORCON. There may be small changes as we approach the flight to the US, but this is solid as far as I know.


3-3.50PM – Handling critical remarks about your writing

4-4.50PM – Publicity for Newbies

8-9PM – Evening with Claudia

9-10ish – Author’s Alley, book-signings (see below)


9-9.50AM – Building An Alternate History World

4-4.50PM – Breaking the Mold – Female Heroes in Modern Sci – Fi


9-9.50 – More Than Swords, the military and fantasy

(I’m supposed to be on the ‘ouch, my spleen’ panel and perhaps one more, but I don’t have a solid time yet.)

Second, book copies.

As I’m sure you can appreciate, I live in the UK. It isn’t easy to ship a vast number of books to the US on spec, although I’m hoping to make arrangements with my US publishers.

If you are coming to the convention and you want to purchase books from me (probably around $15 a book), please could you let me know ASAP. I will be bringing a handful or having them forwarded to the convention, but I do need some idea of how many I’ll sell. You can get a (probably) complete list here – I’ll do a better page for this after I finish The Hammer of God.

I’ll be in the Author’s Alley on Friday and I’ll definitely be around later <grin>.

Hope to see you all there!


New Paperbacks!

21 Sep

Just a quick note – six books are now available in paperback from CreateSpace, through Amazon:

-No Worse Enemy (The Empire’s Corps II)

-When The Bough Breaks (The Empire’s Corps III)

-Ragnarok (Twilight of the Gods III)

-Outside Context Problem (Outside Context Problem I)

-Under Foot (Outside Context Problem II)

-The Slightest Hope of Victory (Outside Context Problem III)

I’m currently waiting to see how the first three Empire’s Corps books do before I put up the remaining nine.

Happy reading!


Movie Review: Captain America Civil War

18 Sep

Having (finally) watched Captain America: Civil War, I find myself with some pretty mixed feelings.


I should try to put this into some perspective. The Marvel Comics Civil War was a great idea destroyed by horrible execution. Basically, the US Government decided to pass a law demanding that superheroes register and train – if, of course, they wanted to be superheroes. Iron Man supported the SRA; Captain America flatly refused to support it. Both sides had some very good points, all of which were lost in the rush to actual combat. The pro-registration side ran around looking like jackbooted thugs; the anti-registration side acted like gadflies, rather than trying to put together a coherent response.

Part of the problem, of course, was that the writers were never clear on what the SRA actually said. Was it just superheroes who had to register? Or was it all superhumans? And what procedure were the superheroes to follow? As Law and the Multiverse points out, Luke Cage could have asked – quite reasonably – how he was supposed to register? If all superheroes were supposed to register, that’s one thing; if all superhumans, that’s quite another.

In the real world (yes, I know) policemen hate vigilantes. A man who decides to take the law into his own hands may not follow the law. Gaining a conviction of someone Spiderman drops off at the police station or Batman leaves hanging from a drain may be impossible in any reasonable court of law. Policemen are trained to do everything from tackle criminals to gather evidence that proves their guilt. Breaching procedure can cause all sorts of problems for later. Even Sherlock can cause problems for the police.

In short, if the basic idea is to regulate and train superheroes, I support it. Training may make the difference between life and death. But if the basic idea is to register superhumans merely for being superhumans, I am against it.

The movie rests on a rather shaky foundation. Wanda – the Scarlet Witch – accidentally causes a disaster during an attempt to stop a supervillain plot. The various world governments decide to put a collar on the Avengers, insisting that they submit to global oversight. Tony Stark supports it; Steve Rogers does not. At that point, matters become muddied by a bombing apparently carried out by Bucky Barns, aka The Winter Soldier. With a manhunt underway for Barns, Captain America is forced to choose between his friends and the accords. It isn’t a surprise that he chooses his friends.

As a movie, Civil War looks great. But it does have problems. The whole dispute that leads to the first major battle, dragging in almost every MCU hero (Thor and Hulk are the only major exceptions) could have been handled with a proper conversation between Stark and Rogers. And while it’s hard to blame Tony “I have daddy issues” Stark for being pissed at the Winter Soldier, it’s possible the whole tragedy could have been averted if everyone had just taken a breath and calmed down. The villain’s plot rested on correctly predicting how Captain America would react to his friend being framed.

Civil War also introduces two new characters; Spiderman and Black Panther. Spiderman is younger than I expected, but the actor makes the character work. His role in the film is smaller than the comic, for better or worse. I disliked the first set of Spiderman movies, so this is a definite improvement. On the downside, Spiderman doesn’t get as much screen time as I would have liked.

The jury is still out on Black Panther. I freely admit that I loathe the comic character with a passion. Unlike War Machine, Luke Cage (or Green Lantern John Stewart), Black Panther is not a well-rounded character, but a shameless piece of racial pandering that is, in many ways, strikingly racist. And sometimes not always in the way you’d expect. (The less said about the Storm miniseries the better.) The movie version is much better than the comic book version, but – again – we just don’t see enough of Black Panther to make any definite judgements. His flaws are not yet manifest.

People may ask why this is a Captain America movie, rather than Avengers III. I think, at heart, it is because the story revolves around Captain America. Having learned harsh lessons about being a good (and unquestioning) soldier in his previous movie, Cap is less inclined to bow the knee to any sort of government oversight. (And realistically, who would expect the UN, even with the best will in the world, to do a good job.) It is Steve Rogers who decides to resist the accords, then save Bucky even though he knows it will put him on the wrong side of the law.

But the movie also explores Steve’s flaws. Wanda was not under arrest in Stark Tower, merely grounded. What would have happened if Wanda, blamed for the first disaster, was seen on the streets? But Steve decides to break her out without thinking, allowing his emotions to steer his path. Rallying the troops to fight, despite the potential consequences, was a mistake. And then choosing to conceal the truth behind Howard Stark’s death until it was too late.

In this perspective, Iron Man serves as the foil to Captain America. Tony is not as cold and emotionless as his armour suggests, but he has strong reasons to support the Accords. (I don’t think it was mentioned, but Tony is the only one of the Avengers who can genuinely be blamed for causing a problem – Ultron.) Tony is fighting desperately to keep his sole remaining family together, while Captain America is breaking it up. He supports the Accords because he feels that accountability is important, but also because he worries that something worse will be on the way.

And, as in the comics, both sides have a point.

One can easily accuse Tony of crossing the line, well before War Machine’s near-death. I’m not sure how old Spiderman is in the MCU, but I’d put him at somewhere between 15-17 – a child-soldier, by any reasonable definition. And yet, the same could be said for Wanda. She isn’t much older than Peter Parker, with marginally more experience in the field. But she is treated as a front-line Avenger.

The lesser characters get some moments too, although they’re not always to their advantage. Wanda comes across as a petulant teenager at times, smarting under being grounded and unwilling to admit that it’s for her own safety. Vision, who clearly has feelings for Wanda, is making clumsy attempts to court her. Their relationship suffers before it truly begins when they wind up on opposing sides. Ant-Man (and Spiderman) fan-boy over Captain America, Falcon and Black Widow make hard choices (although Widow seems to get away with her decision to betray Iron Man.)

I was surprised to see General Ross return, let alone be the driving force behind the Accords. I thought he was the villain at first. But thinking about it, his attitude makes sense. Ross probably got into deep shit after The Incredible Hulk. He’s not going to be too happy at the Avengers seemingly getting away with far worse.

Overall, there are some great moments in the film. The confrontation between the two sides at the airport looks fantastic, with superpowers used to their best advantage. Anyone who thinks that Tony holds all the cards will be shocked by the battle. But, at the same time, the movie doesn’t make quite as much sense as the comic book.

But that’s just my inner critic. Overall, I liked the movie.

Wedding Hells: Randor and Alicia

10 Sep

A couple of people asked about this, so I thought I’d address it in a post.

The problem facing Alicia is that she wasn’t ‘confirmed’ by the time her father and brothers were beheaded, as punishment for their role in the failed coup against King Randor (Lessons in Etiquette). A confirmation ceremony marks a parental acknowledgement that a child has become an adult and confirms their place in the line of succession. It also grants certain rights, such as the right to refuse a marriage, which tends to ensure that parents are reluctant to confirm their younger (and female) children before they’re married off or otherwise put in place to support the family, specifically the one who will succeed his father as patriarch.

Alassa’s ceremony in Lessons was important because it ensures that she can take the throne at once, after her father dies. Without it, her uncle would rule as regent – and, because she was a princess, he’d have plenty of opportunity to organise matters to suit himself before he finally stepped aside. (You can see why the plotters wanted to strike before the ceremony, as they already had the Duke of Iron under their control.)

What this meant, in practical terms, was that Alicia, the sole survivor of her family, was legally a minor child (at 24!) when her father and brother died.

Randor’s solution to this problem was to take Alicia as his ward, install her as a ‘guest’ within his castle and appoint agents to run the Barony until he saw fit to allow her to return. This gave him great power over her, up to and including arranging her marriage to suit himself. The prospect of Alicia’s hand in marriage was enough to keep a number of minor nobles dancing on his strings for a couple of years. Indeed, Alicia was far more helpless than Alassa. She wouldn’t be inheriting the throne, nor did she have any powerful friends. Alicia was never courted for her support because all the power rested in Randor’s hands.

Randor, who had grown increasingly paranoid and sadistic since his betrayal and near-death in Lessons, eventually seduced Alicia himself. This was not a healthy relationship. The part of him that wanted to make his enemies suffer loved watching Alicia make the decision to degrade herself, in the hopes that he would eventually give her back her birthright. Randor assumed, with very good reason, that there would be no long-term consequences. He had plenty of time to choose Alicia’s husband, organise the Barony to ensure Alicia’s hands would be tied and generally keep his dominant position within the kingdom.

At this point, two months prior to the opening of Wedding Hells, Alicia realised she was pregnant. And Randor was the father.

Randor had assumed, based on the simple fact that he’d only sired one child (legitimate or otherwise), that Alicia wouldn’t get pregnant. He certainly didn’t bother to take any precautions! Indeed, he was only vaguely aware of the pregnancy – he didn’t believe the signs the maids noticed – until the truth accidentally came out, plunging him into a dangerous crisis.

He wanted a son, wanted one very much. It wouldn’t be hard to fiddle the politics so Alicia became his wife, giving her unborn child legitimacy. But this ran the risk of a clash with his daughter. Alassa, a confirmed Crown Princess, was a formidable magician in her own right, engaged to a fully-trained combat sorcerer, best friends with the most terrifying person on the Nameless World … and very well-placed to serve as the focus for all the anti-Randor feeling that had re-emerged since the failed coup. The prospect of a male child palled compared to the danger of a civil war he might well lose, one that would plunge the kingdom into chaos.

And even if he won, even if he managed to give the unborn child some semblance of legitimacy, it would be at least sixteen years before the child could take the throne. A lot could happen in sixteen years. There was a very strong possibility that someone would bump him off in the intervening years.

At this point, Randor folded his cards and arranged a reasonably decent match for Alicia.

He had good reason to be mad at Emily for forcing his hand. The prospect of a civil war forced him to cut all ties with the unborn child; ensuring that Alicia’s husband would accept the child meant that he wouldn’t have complete control over the Barony or Alicia after her match. Randor had no strong feelings for Alicia, but it galled him to let her go in a manner he didn’t choose. It hardened his determination to bring Emily firmly under his control, which led to ultimate disaster in Wedding Hells.

Obviously, this situation will cast a long shadow over the future of Zangaria.

Historically, this has happened more than once. Henry II, the first true Plantagenet King, was reputed to have seduced his son’s intended bride, who was living with him at the time. This was, of course, more unlucky for the girl than her seducer (although she did have a happy ending of sorts, well away from the Demon’s Brood.)

Book Sale Update

8 Sep

Hi, everyone

First, I owe a number of people an apology for not handling this sooner. In my defence, I went to Malaysia for six months and then we had problems with the new house that prevented me from bringing out my stock, assessing what was missing and obtaining new copies of the missing books. Mea Culpa.

Anyway …

As some of you know, owing to the general confusion in the April-May period, a number of copies of my books were sent out to purchases without signatures. I have no excuse for this at all. If you received copies of unsigned books and you want them signed, please drop me an email at the normal address and let me know what you have and what you want. We can work something out from there.

Second, if you didn’t purchase any books from me during the last sale, this is your chance to purchase more copies (which will be signed unless you specifically refuse it). Copies of books to a UK address will be £12, copies of books to a non-UK address will be £17, payment via PayPal (but drop me an email first to make sure I have whatever you want in stock.) As of this post, I have:

Schooled in Magic 1-9, Barbarians at the Gates 1-3, Ark Royal 1-8, A Learning Experience 1-3, Twilight of the Gods 1-2, The Royal Sorceress 1-4, Angel in the Whirlwind 1-2, Bookworm 2-4 (note no copies of Bookworm itself ATM) and a handful of singletons.

Please make sure that you provide me with the complete address for international shipping, particularly for non-UK addresses. I take no responsibility for parcels that go missing owning to faulty addresses.

Thank you in advance.


Book Review–The Magicians

7 Sep

The Magicians

Lev Grossman

The Magicians is a deeply overrated book.

There’s no way to get around this. The world-building is derivative in many ways – drawing its principle inspiration from Harry Potter and Narnia – but that alone is not enough to dissuade me from finishing a book and moving on to the sequels. Indeed, the world-building has just enough original flair to keep my attention.

The problem lies with the main character, the ‘hero.’ I started to dislike him the moment I first met him and my feelings didn’t improve as the book went along. Quentin Coldwater isn’t much more likeable than Left Behind’s Rayford Steele (although he’s much less creepy) and while he does have a few moments of self-reflection (Steele has none), he never actually grows into adulthood. Indeed, in many ways, Quentin is the boy who never grew up. And while the book is aware of his weaknesses – Alice points them out to him at one point – he is never seen to overcome them.

Quentin – a brilliant student from a wealthy family – is obsessed with finding the adventure that will give his life meaning. Or he thinks will give his life meaning. He finds his way to Hogwarts – sorry, Brakebills Academy – where he studies magic, but he is still not satisfied; he finds his way to Narnia – sorry, Fillory – where his lust for adventure leads to tragedy and a return to the mundane world … that lasts around five or six pages. And yet, Quentin is simply unsatisfied by his life.

It is this complete lack of satisfaction that leaves me wanting to shake him. Quentin is basically a spoilt rich kid, the type of person – like Chelsea Clinton – who can comfortably say that he doesn’t care much about money. During the second part of the book, Quentin and his friends basically act like college students even though they’d not in college any longer – they spend their days in hedonism while the rest of us have to count pennies while desperately searching for a job. Quentin has the love of a good woman, yet he cheats on her purely for shits and giggles. And then he has the gall to be hurt when she refuses to take it in good part.

Quentin is simply never satisfied with his life.

I’ve said that several times because it is a recurring theme in the book. He lusts for adventure, for something that will give his life meaning, then largely ignores it when it is right in front of him. And then, when he does find a gateway to another world, he and his friends plunge in without thinking.

It would be fun, perhaps, to write a novel exploring what happened if the four Pensive children – the original children – stumbled into Narnia as adults. Children and young teens accept the magic of the world, adults would start asking questions. (And realistically, can you blame Susan for turning away from Narnia?) But this book doesn’t really answer any of those questions. Instead, they just blunder around like idiots.

The Magicians is also badly-paced. The first part of the book – life in magic-college – covers several years; the second part – life as a post-student – seems equally as long. The third part, where the adventure really starts, isn’t anything like long enough. I would have preferred, really, to have the entire first book set in college. There are a lot of ideas here, but Grossman doesn’t do any of them true justice. Indeed, quite a few aspects of Harry Potter or Narnia that should have been explored are not.

In the end, The Magicians is an interesting book badly let down by its main character.

Two stars out of five.

Snippet–The Hammer of God (Angel IV)

5 Sep


“I refuse to believe,” Lord Cleric Eliseus snarled, “that we are losing the war.”

Speaker Nehemiah kept his face carefully blank as the Lord Cleric ranted in front of the entire Speakers Council, accusing the unfortunate intelligence officer of everything from making up his figures to outright heresy and unbelief. He didn’t want to believe what he was being told, none of them did. The thought of losing the war, the war which had begun with such promise eighteen months ago, was unthinkable. But it had to be faced.

“Enough,” he said, sharply.

Eliseus spun around to face him. “Speaker, do you believe that we are losing the war?”

Nehemiah looked back at him, evenly. Eliseus was a fanatic. There was no one more determined to uphold the Theocracy – and the True Faith – than himself. And Nehemiah would be the first to admit that fanatics had their uses. But when it came to contemplating the cold hard numbers – and the possibility of losing the war – fanatics were nothing more than dangerous liabilities.

He ignored the question. “Continue,” he ordered the intelligence officer. “Summarise the data for us.”

“Yes, Your Holiness,” Commodore Ruthven said.

He swallowed hard, then continued. “Over the last eighteen months, the Commonwealth has switched its economy onto a war footing and commenced mass production of warships, gunboats, freighters and everything else necessary to sustain a war. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to impede their production to any significant extent. In addition, they have recruited vast numbers of starship crew and soldiers from their subject worlds, ensuring that their manpower shortage is a thing of the past. We had hoped that integrating so many personnel from so many worlds would cause them problems, but they appear to have coped with them admirably.”

Nehemiah kept his face still, even as he felt a flicker of discontent. The Commonwealth had been having problems as it struggled to integrate so many worlds into its political and economic union, but the war had pushed those problems aside. In hindsight, it had been a mistake to move to convert the occupied worlds as soon as possible. There might be strife between the Tyre-born and the colonials, but both sides knew that they had to work together or be destroyed. The Theocracy wouldn’t give them a peace they could live with and they knew it.

“Our own economy is on the verge of imploding,” Ruthven continued. He carefully did not look at the Speakers charged with overseeing the economy. “Our war production has shrunk remarkably in the last six months; production of everything from starships to missile warheads has declined sharply. Indeed, we only managed to launch four superdreadnaughts since the start of the war; the enemy, damn them to hell, has launched twenty. And, thanks to enemy raiding parties operating behind our lines, we have problems getting supplies to the war front. We simply cannot afford to keep losing freighters at this rate.”

“The crews are treacherous,” Speaker Adam snapped. “They cannot be trusted!”

“They’re unbelievers,” Nehemiah said. “What do you expect?”

He rubbed his eyes tiredly. The Theocracy had poured resources into its battle fleet, building up the largest military machine it could … but it had neglected the sinews of war. Supporting the vast fleet hadn’t been easy before the war; now, it was almost impossible. The Commonwealth’s tactic of raiding transport convoys was paying off for them. Either the Theocracy recalled ships from the front to escort convoys, thus weakening the defence lines, or the freighters were blown out of space. The Commonwealth won either way.

And hiring outsiders to transport our supplies has backfired, he thought. They start planning to leave as soon as they get a good look at us.

Ruthven kept talking. “Our sources within the Commonwealth agree that the enemy intends to begin a major offensive within the next three months,” he said. “They will start by evicting us from the occupied worlds, followed by a thrust through the Gap and into Theocratic Space. I do not believe that they have grasped our current weakness, or just how far ahead of us they are, but they will find out when they begin their offensive. We are in no state to keep them from achieving their goals and stabbing deeper into our space.”

He paused. “The war will soon come to an end.”

“No,” Eliseus snapped. “Our men will fight …”

“And they will lose,” Ruthven said.

Nehemiah held up a hand before Eliseus could say a word. “Explain.”

Ruthven bowed his head. “Our forces are weakening fast,” he said. “We have significant shortages of everything from spare parts to missiles and other weapons systems. Worse, we have been unable to run basic maintenance cycles. As a result, too many of our remaining superdreadnaughts are not at full combat efficiency – and won’t be without a long stay in the yards. There have been accidents – long strings of accidents – that have cost lives and destroyed morale. Our forces are brittle, Your Holiness. When the enemy attacks – and they will – our forces will break.”

“Impossible,” Eliseus snarled.

“The figures speak for themselves,” Ruthven said. He spoke like a man who had nothing left to lose. “We cannot counter hard numbers with faith.”

He leaned back, slightly. “We could kill ten of theirs for every one of ours,” he added. “And we would still lose.”

“The Commonwealth is weak,” Eliseus said. He turned to Nehemiah. “They could not endure such losses.”

“Assuming we could inflict them,” Nehemiah said.

“We can,” Eliseus insisted.

Nehemiah ignored him. The war had been intended to be short and victorious. Instead, it was turning into a long war of attrition … a war they couldn’t hope to win. Already, rumours were spreading through the Theocracy, rumours that couldn’t be stopped no matter how many unbelievers were purged. The population outside was starting to doubt their leaders … and resent the demands placed on them by the war effort. And there were rumours of resistance cells on planets that had been quiet, only two years ago.

And we can’t even move additional troops to reinforce the occupying forces, he thought. We don’t have the shipping any longer.

He closed his eyes for a long moment as the table started to babble. The fanatics, like Eliseus, would demand that the war be continued, despite the cost. Their faith in ultimate victory was unshakable. But others would be considering their own futures. They’d profited hugely through their positions and they wouldn’t want to lose them.

Speaker Adam leaned forward. “Perhaps we should sue for peace.”

“Impossible,” Eliseus roared.

Nehemiah allowed the table to finish shouting its outrage, then looked at Ruthven. “Can we sue for peace?”

Ruthven grew even paler. “Your Holiness, they will not accept peace on any terms we would consider acceptable,” he warned. “They want to ensure that we will no longer be a threat to them.”

And we don’t have any leverage to convince them otherwise, Nehemiah thought. Or do we?

He thought rapidly as the table erupted once again. Now the suggestion had been made … it could not be withdrawn. The thought of ending the war on any terms other than total victory was unthinkable – no, it had been unthinkable. Now … Nehemiah would be happy to end the wretched war on the basis of a return to the status quo ante bellum, but the Commonwealth would not. And why should it? The Commonwealth was on the verge of winning the war.

Unless we can force them to pay a high price for victory, he told himself. The idea was gelling in his mind. It was a gamble, but they had nothing to lose. Besides, God was on their side. And if the price is too high, they might accept a compromise peace.

He cleared his throat, bringing the argument to an end. “We have to convince them to agree to a truce,” he said. They would listen to him, in the end, because they were desperate. The war had to be ended on acceptable terms. “This is what we’re going to do.”

Chapter One

“Transit complete, Captain,” Lieutenant Matthew Gross said. “We have entered the system.”

“No enemy contacts detected,” Lieutenant-Commander Cecelia Parkinson added, studying her console carefully. “I’m not detecting any starships within sensor range.”

Captain Sir William McElney sucked in his breath. HMS Thunderchild had slipped out of hyperspace on the very edge of the system, where there was no reason to expect to encounter enemy warships on patrol, but it was just possible that the Theocrats might have installed extensive deep space monitoring arrays. They were immensely expensive, even by the Commonwealth’s standards, yet the Theocracy needed them. Hebrides was right in the middle of the war front.

“Take us into cloak,” he ordered, quietly. The tactical display updated, again. A handful of freighters were making their way to and from the system’s largest gas giant, but otherwise the system appeared to be empty. He knew it was an illusion. “And then set course for Hebrides.”

“Aye, Captain,” Gross said. “Course laid in.”

“Take us there,” William ordered.

He leaned back in his command chair as the starship picked up speed. Hebrides had never had the industrial base of Tyre – his homeworld had been a stage-two colony before the Breakaway Wars – but his people were industrious. The loans and equipment the Commonwealth had offered them, during the first few years of Commonwealth membership, had been used to establish a whole network of mining stations and industrial nodes. They’d even produced a second cloudscoop to match the one the Commonwealth had installed, years ago. But now the system was as cold and still as the grave. The installations his people had produced were gone.

They wouldn’t have let them fall into enemy hands, he thought. The battle for Hebrides had been savage, but the outcome had been foreordained from the start. They’d have destroyed everything that couldn’t be removed before it was too late.

He couldn’t help feeling a wave of nostalgia, mixed with an odd sense that he no longer fitted in on his homeworld. It had been decades since he’d left, decades since he’d joined the Royal Navy … he’d thought about retiring and going home, but never very seriously. Only a handful of his family remained alive on the barren rock – his only surviving brother had left too – and he hadn’t been very close to any of them. He’d hated the planet’s leaders with a passion …

… But they didn’t deserve to be occupied by the Theocracy.

No one does, he thought. The bastards couldn’t even bother to wait for the end of the war before they started converting the population.

He shuddered at the thought. He’d seen the recordings from Hebrides, from Cadiz, from a dozen other unfortunate worlds that had been occupied by the Theocracy. And he’d listened as countless refugees told their stories, warning the Commonwealth’s population of the fate that was in store for them if they lost the war. The entire planetary government would be slaughtered, along with all military and religious personnel; men would be expected to learn to pray, women would be forced to remain in their homes, children would be educated in Theocratic schools … even if Hebrides was liberated tomorrow, William thought, the damage to her society would take generations to fix.

But my people are tough, he thought. They will resist.

ONI insisted that Hebrides was still resisting the Theocracy. And, while William had learned to take ONI’s pronouncements with a grain of salt, he had to admit that Hebrides was definitely well-prepared for a long-term insurrection. The population was composed of stubborn men and women, most of whom had weapons and knew how to use them. And while other planets might be cowed by the threat of orbital bombardment, Hebrides had few population centres that could be threatened. There would be a planet-wide resistance, William was sure. But it couldn’t hope to do more than sting the Theocracy without outside help.

Which is why we’re here, he reminded himself. It’s time to drive the bastards out of the system, once and for all.

He couldn’t help feeling a surge of very mixed feelings. He knew the Commonwealth had needed time to build up its navy, he knew the Commonwealth needed to protect the stage-four and stage-five worlds ahead of the others … but he still couldn’t help feeling as though the Commonwealth had left Hebrides to suffer. Hebrides had nothing, save for location – and, realistically, it didn’t have enough of a location to make up for its other defects. Liberating his homeworld had always been a very low priority.

But we’re coming now, he thought.

The hours ticked by, slowly, as Thunderchild slipped towards the planet. William cursed under his breath as new icons flickered to life on the display; two enemy superdreadnaught squadrons, holding station in high orbit. They didn’t seem to have many flankers, he noted; there were only five destroyers and two ships that resembled converted freighters. But then, the Theocracy was running short of escorts. They probably hoped the superdreadnaughts could take care of themselves.

Which is careless, William thought. Every missile taken out by a flanker is one that won’t threaten the superdreadnaught itself.

He rose and paced over to the tactical console. “Analysis?”

“They’re not in good shape, Captain,” Cecelia said. She tapped an enemy icon on the display. “They’re running constant near-orbit scans, but their sensor emissions look a little ragged; I’d say they’re trying to keep their system constantly ramped up and some of their components are burning out. And this ship” – she pointed to a second icon – “has some very odd fluctuations in her drive fields. I’d bet good money that she’s lost at least one, perhaps two, of her nodes.”

“No bet,” William said. “And the freighters?”

“They’ve got mil-grade drives,” Cecelia said. She sniffed, rudely. “It’s impossible to be sure, Captain, but I think there’s a very real risk they’d rip themselves apart if they brought their drives up to full power.”

William wasn’t so sure. The Theocracy’s starship designers were inferior to the Commonwealth’s, but they weren’t stupid. They wouldn’t have put such a drive in a freighter unless they were sure she could handle it. And that meant …

He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “What do you think they are?”

“I’d guess they were Q-Ships,” Cecelia said, after a moment. She looked up at him, thoughtfully. “But they’re a bit obvious for Q-Ships. They might be gunboat carriers.”

“Perhaps,” William said. He’d bet on the latter, personally. Unless the Theocracy was trying to intimidate potential raiders … but really, the raiding parties that had been sent into enemy space wouldn’t be particularly intimidated. Capturing enemy freighters was all very well and good, yet the Commonwealth’s objectives would be served just as well by blowing the suspect vessel out of space from a safe distance. “Keep a sharp eye on them.”

“Aye, Captain,” Cecelia said.

She smiled, thinly. “My overall analysis is that both squadrons are in trouble,” she added. “I think they really need a few months in the yard.”

William nodded. It was a general rule of thumb that a starship, particularly anything as big as a superdreadnaught, required at least three months in the yard per year. Even in the Commonwealth, where engineering crews knew what they were doing and why they were doing it, the ships needed to spend some time in the yards. But the Theocracy was running its fleet ragged. William had a feeling that his opposite numbers aboard the enemy ships were just waiting, biting their nails, to see what failed next.

And to think I thought Uncanny was bad, he thought. These ships are in worse condition.

“See if you can pick out any specific weaknesses,” he ordered. “If you can, add them to the tactical matrix.”

“Aye, Captain,” Cecelia said.

William felt a flicker of pride as he turned and walked back to his chair. He’d never been a father, but he couldn’t help feeling a certain paternalistic pride in the officer Cecelia had become. The young midshipwoman he’d met on Lightning had turned into a confident capable officer who would probably be on the shortlist for a command of her own, after she served a term as XO. And she’d probably do a good job of that too.

He sat down and studied the report from the analysis department. They largely agreed with Cecelia’s conclusions, although there were a few refinements. The enemy ships seemed to be permanently on combat alert, even though the Commonwealth hadn’t raided the system in months. William had no idea if the enemy was being paranoid or merely trying to make a good show, but he knew it couldn’t be good for their equipment … or their crew. No crew could remain on alert indefinitely. By now, the poor bastards would be worn down so badly they’d probably be falling asleep at their stations.

And getting flogged when they’re caught, he thought. He’d heard enough about what passed for discipline in the Theocratic Navy to be very glad he didn’t serve in it. The poor bastards are treated like shit by absolutely everyone.

“Captain,” Cecelia said. “I have an update on the planet itself.”

“Show me,” William said.

He felt an odd pang as a holographic image of the planet appeared in front of him. Hebrides was a greenish orb. Unusually for a life-bearing world, most of her surface area was land rather than sea, patches of greenery broken by towering mountains that reached up towards the skies. He remembered climbing some of them as a child, back before the pirates had started to raid his homeworld. Even now, there were mountains that had never been climbed, by anyone. But they’d claimed dozens of lives …

“A number of settlements have been destroyed,” Cecelia said. “And the enemy appears to have installed a couple of PDCs near Lothian.”

“That’s bad,” William said. Two PDCs couldn’t hope to defend the planet alone, not without the fleet, but they could make life difficult for the landing force. “Can you determine their current status?”

“No, Captain,” Cecelia said. “They’re not emitting any sensor radiation.”

William shook his head. Task Force Hebrides had more than enough firepower – and marines – to deal with two PDCs, even if they did put up a fight. The real danger lay in the enemy superdreadnaughts, but they would still be massively outgunned. In their place, William would have retreated the moment Task Force Hebrides showed itself. There was nothing to be gained by sacrificing two squadrons of superdreadnaughts in a futile attempt to keep a useless world. Hell, he wasn’t sure why the Theocracy hadn’t cut its losses years ago. It wasn’t as if Hebrides was going to pose a threat to their rear.

He leaned back in his chair. If there were any other enemy ships – or installations – within the system, they were very well hidden. But they were also irrelevant. Hebrides was the sole prize … and besides, the opportunity to crush two squadrons of superdreadnaughts was not one to miss. Task Force Hebrides had more than enough firepower to smash them.

“Helm, take us to the first waypoint,” he ordered. “Tactical, start preparing to deploy the first set of sensor platforms.”

“Aye, Captain,” Gross said. A low quiver ran through the light cruiser as she altered course. “ETA seven minutes.”

William kept a sharp eye on the display. The recon platforms were heavily stealthed – he knew from experience that they were almost impossible to detect, even at point-blank range – but Thunderchild would never be more vulnerable than when she was deploying the platforms. A alert sensor officer might just pick up something that would alert him to Thunderchild’s presence – and, if his commanding officer took him seriously, he might dispatch a couple of destroyers to sweep local space. William had no doubt he could avoid contact long enough to make a clean getaway, but the enemy would be alerted. They’d know the Commonwealth was planning an offensive.

And they might have a chance to capture one of the platforms too, he thought, sourly. That would get us all in deep shit.

His face darkened at the thought. The Theocracy was unlikely to be able to reverse-engineer anything they captured, at least quickly enough to matter, but there were other multistar political entities out there. ONI had warned, in considerable detail, that certain powers were negotiating with the Theocracy, trading weapons and supplies for samples of Commonwealth technology. William wasn’t sure just how seriously to take it, but he had to admit it was a valid concern. The Commonwealth-Theocracy War was the first true interstellar war fought between peer powers. Every naval force worthy of the name would be frantically studying the war and trying to determine what lessons could be learned from it before they too had to go to war.

Starting with not allowing a complete idiot to take command of a major fleet base, William thought, feeling a flicker of cold amusement. If Admiral Morrison had done his fucking job …

“Captain,” Gross said. “We have reached the first waypoint.”

“Very good,” William said. The enemy squadrons didn’t look to be any more alert, but it was impossible to be sure. He couldn’t help wondering if the enemy ships would decay into complete uselessness if left alone. “Deploy the recon platform.”

“Aye, Captain,” Cecelia said.

William tensed. He would have preferred to deploy the platform much further away from the planet, but his briefing had made it clear that they needed the platform as close to the planet as possible. It wasn’t just a recon platform, not really. Many of the details were classified well above his pay grade, but he’d picked up enough hints to know that it was connected to a whole new weapons system. And if it worked …

Another good reason to test the system here, he thought. No one will notice if the system fails.

“Platform deployed,” Cecelia said. “No sign of enemy reaction.”

William wasn’t reassured. In his experience, it could take time to convince a commanding officer to investigate a potential disturbance … longer if the commanding officer needed to speak to his commanding officers. And if the enemy commander decided to play it smart, he might be careful not to do anything to warn William while the enemy ships readied themselves for action. But there was no time to wait and see what the enemy did.

“Establish the laser link, then move us to the second waypoint,” he ordered. “Do not lose contact with the platform.”

“Aye, Captain,” Gross said.

William had to smile at the flicker of indignation in Gross’s voice. He was a very good helmsman. But then, stealthed platforms had been lost before and, while there was an omnidirectional radio beacon mounted on the platform, triggering it would alert the enemy to their presence. The platform would have to be destroyed instead of recovered.

“Laser link firmly in place, Captain,” Cecelia reported.

“Reaching second waypoint,” Gross added.

“Deploy the second platform,” William ordered.

He kept a wary eye on the enemy ships as Thunderchild deployed the remaining platforms, one by one, but the enemy showed no hint that they were aware of his ship’s presence. They didn’t even seem to be exercising, although that proved nothing. The vast majority of shipboard functions could be practiced through simulations, even though there was no true substitute for a live-fire exercise. But if half of his suspicions were accurate, the Theocratic ships were in no state for anything. A live-fire exercise might end in tragedy.

Just like it nearly did for Uncanny, he mused. The thought of his first command cost him a pang, even though the heavy cruiser had died well. And they don’t have the ships or men to spare.

“Captain,” Cecelia snapped. “One of the superdreadnaughts just fired on the planet.”

William swung around to stare at her. “At what?”

“A town, five hundred kilometres from Lothian,” Cecelia said. Her voice was tightly controlled. “They dropped at least seven KEWs, mid-sized weapons.”

Bastards, William thought. Seven KEWs would be more than enough to utterly devastate the town. If anything, it was massive overkill. What are they doing down there?

He had a feeling he knew the answer. The Theocracy’s theology insisted that anyone who resisted, anyone who did not cheerfully accept the True Faith as soon as they heard it, was nothing more than a devil-spawned heretic. They weren’t just wrong, they were wilfully wrong. William didn’t care to follow the logic – or the complete lack of it – but he didn’t need to follow it to know where it led. Anyone the Theocracy classed as a heretic could be enslaved or killed at will.

And there will be an awful lot of heretics on my homeworld, he thought. We don’t give in that easily.

It looked bloodless on the display, falling icons touching the planet and flickering out of existence. But he knew what it was like to be under the enemy weapons when they struck the surface. The entire town would have been smashed flat, anyone unlucky enough to be inside killed before they realised that they were under attack. And enemy kill-teams would follow up, sweeping the surrounding area to catch anyone who might have managed to escape. He knew, all too well, what they would do to anyone unlucky enough to be caught. Or, for that matter, anyone unlucky enough to live too close to the blast zone.

We’re coming, he promised the planet silently. You will be free soon.

“Take us back into deep space,” he ordered. There was nothing they could do now, but once they linked up with the remainder of the task force … the Theocracy was in for a nasty shock. “We’ll slip back into hyperspace once we’ve crossed the system limits.”

“Aye, Captain,” Gross said.

Ten hours later, HMS Thunderchild departed the system as stealthily as she’d arrived.