Archive | January, 2017

New Paperbacks!

24 Jan


We Lead, Semper Fi, The Outcast and To The Shores are now available for purchase in paperback form.

We Lead –

Semper Fi –

The Outcast –

To The Shores –

Review:The Fall of the Roman Empire

24 Jan

-Michael Grant

This is a book that everyone should read.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is not a narrative history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (unlike Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell (aka The Fall of the West). Instead, it is a look at the stresses and strains on the Roman Empire as it grew older and an analysis of the factors that eventually weakened it to the point it collapsed. And, rereading the book, it is striking just how many of the factors that eventually destroyed Rome are present in modern-day society. Indeed, while our advanced technology is a blessing, it also makes some of the factors worse.

The core problem facing the Roman Empire might be termed the drain on every last sector of society (and the consequent lack of willingness to fight to save the empire.) The rich (and successful) were punished for their success by increased taxes and obligations, while the poor were increasingly forced into effective serfdom (or banditry) as the only way to keep themselves alive. In the meantime, the middle classes – such as they were in the Roman Empire – were squeezed by both sides. All three classes had good reasons to feel that they were being victimised.

This had all sorts of effects that weakened the empire. Powerful landowners became effective aristocratic lords in their own territories, kicking out the bureaucrats, army recruiting officers, etc. Indeed, they had no choice. But it also led to the rise of banditry and social drop-outs, people who chose to abandon society completely. This may well have led to declining birth-rates.

Worse, perhaps, the army was both victimiser and victimised. On one hand, the vast growth in military power proved a constant temptation to officers to make themselves emperors. The army’s demands grew beyond reason, draining more and more money from the state (and its taxpayers). And yet, on the other hand, the ordinary soldiers were starved of money (stolen by corrupt officers) and supplies, something that invariably turned them into legalised bandits. Military service was no longer seen as a badge of honour in Rome, but something to be avoided at all costs.

And yet the army was necessary, because the Roman Empire had failed to solve its race problem. German immigration posed a serious threat to the empire, all the more so because Rome needed the immigrants even as it despised them. German manpower could and did fill the legions, but this wasn’t matched by legal rights. Rome had once been good at absorbing immigrants, when slaves would often work their way out of slavery and become citizens; now, Germans could never escape the taint of being German. The Romans could neither expel them from the Roman Empire nor assimilate them. What makes this particularly tragic was that many of the Germans probably would have happily joined Rome, if they’d been given the chance.

Worst of all was the rise in bureaucracy and government. The Roman Empire had once been a place where a man could rise high, but no more. Now, each citizen was expected to know his place and stick to it. An immense bureaucracy grew up, both draining the empire’s resources and isolating the Emperor from the common people. Corruption spread rapidly, to the point that honest civil servants were regarded as heroes. The bureaucracy was so vast, indeed, that the attempts made by a handful of emperors to weed out corruption were utterly futile. And yet – again – the average bureaucrats were paid so poorly that they had reason to grab what they could.

It was not one of these factors that brought the Roman Empire down, but their effect in combination. The empire was trapped in a whirlpool leading to inevitable destruction. Individual freedom was practically stamped out, ensuring that there would be no attempt to rejuvenate the empire. Loyalty to the emperors declined to nothing, both because the emperors were frequently overthrown and because the emperors were seen as causing the problems. (By this point, that wasn’t necessarily true.) Racial tensions weakened the army, to the point where entire units either went over to the enemy or were accused of doing so. And all the emperors could do was watch, helplessly, as their relative power declined to nothingness.

The early Romans – even after Augustus became the first true Emperor – believed they had a stake in their society. The aristocracy was expected to serve as well as rule. The legions were composed of small landholders, men who fought for the land and city. There were opportunities for advancement for all, even new immigrants (Marius and Cicero were ‘new men’) and the descendents of slaves. Indeed, one’s father or grandfather being a slave wasn’t something bad. There were grounds to admire a man who climbed out of slavery. (And it also served as an escape value for slaves who might prove dangerous, like Spartacus.)

But this started to decline even before Caesar and Pompey. The stubborn city fathers – including Cato – refused to admit that something would have to change. They created a situation where losing meant certain death, causing the civil war. These problems only got worse as the Republic became the Empire and advancement was sharply curtailed. As Rome reached the limits of expansion, the escape value was closed and Rome started to die.

The barbarians might have stormed Rome, but it was the Romans themselves who committed suicide.

These problems are reflected, in many ways, in our own society. On one hand, the rich are getting richer and more powerful; on the other, the middle classes are being squeezed and the poor are being supported by government hand-outs. There is no shortage of bitter irony here – the middle classes believe, rightly, that they are being bled, but at the same time much of the money is being wasted rather than spent to help the poor. The poor can also claim that they’re on the edge – and they’re right too.

In the meantime, the bureaucracy is out of control and the government has lost touch. In the case of the former, the bureaucrats have to justify their existence – somehow – while, in the case of the latter, the political elites have forgotten how to serve. (There is no way this could be said of Cato or Pompey – even Cicero served in the military during the Social War.) We have bred a social class – the political elites – that have no experience of the world outside politics. They have never run a business or served in the military. Is it such a surprise, therefore, that men like Tony Blair and Barrack Obama are so frequently outmatched by Putin? Or that politicians like John Edwards, Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel self-destruct so spectacularly? They do not have the social contact they need to understand the situation on the ground.

It is easy to condemn drop-outs from society, people who take drugs or spend all their time playing video games. And yet, what prospects do they have? It is harder, these days, to get a meaningful job, let alone one with any hope of advancement. A wife and family? Not a hope – these days, one can lose both in a moment. And purchasing a home may be completely out of the question for years, if ever. If it is harder to advance, people stop trying. Indeed, the recent upswing in male suicides may be linked to simple hopelessness. Why bother?

Like I said in The Living Will Envy The Dead, the more you ask your government to do for you … the less it can do for you.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is a shorter book than one might expect, but it is an easy – and understandable – read. I highly recommend it.

Rise and Fall of an Emperor

24 Jan

Just an idea that has been buzzing through my head. I might turn it into a series …

From: Encyclopaedia Imperial.

The oddest thing about the life of Maxim Thrace, founder of the Thrace Dynasty, is that very little is known of his family prior to his rise to power. The records have either been lost or deliberately destroyed during his reign. Trace himself claimed, at times, to be a farm boy, a local aristocrat or the descendent of a pre-space noble family. It goes without saying that none of these claims have ever been proven. What is known is that he was born on Taros, most likely to a freeholder family.

He signed up with the Imperial Marines at seventeen (he would claim, at times, to be fifteen when he took the oath) after an incident involving the son of a local nobleman. His own account of the incident insisted that he caught the nobleman trying to rape his cousin and beat him to within an inch of his life. Knowing that the nobility would not let his act go unpunished, he fled to the city and joined the Imperial Marines. The marines would protect him until he was shipped off-world to Boot Camp.

As it happened, Thrace never went to Boot Camp. (He remains one of the very few people to be listed in records as a marine, even though he never underwent the training.) He was still waiting for his ship – and training with the marines stationed on Taros – when civil war broke out. Even an untrained warm body had to be pressed into service and Thrace had a number of adventures – including being captured by the nobility – before the civil war finally came to an end. Thrace would probably have gone on to a successful career in the marines if he hadn’t made the mistake of punching an officer who arrived after the fighting ended. Instead, having earned some favour from the governor and his former superiors, Thrace was offered a midshipman’s post on HMS Jackson. Realising it was his only way to escape Taros, Thrace took the offer.

His term on Jackson was controversial. He learned fast and well, but rapidly found himself bored. Disciplinary records insist that Thrace was not one to suffer fools lightly. He was eventually sent on a mission to raid pirate ships and locate their bases, a mission which ended with the successful rescue of the Sector Governor’s daughter. This earned him promotion, but it also brought him into contact with Commander Edward Patterson … a man who would prove to be a friend as well as an enemy.

This did not become apparent at once, of course. Thrace went on to take command of HMS Ravage and patrol the neutral zone between the Imperial Empire and the Delphic Union (one of the few peer powers during that time.) Again, he had a series of adventures, ending in a raid across the neutral zone to prevent the Delphic Union from launching a sneak attack on the Empire. He also became friends with Prince Henry, the heir to the Imperial Throne.

Promoted – again – Thrace was sent to Earth. He rapidly found court life boring, a sentiment shared by Prince Henry. Wanting something more for himself, Prince Henry convinced his father to launch an invasion of the Agave, an invasion that would give him a chance to win military glory. Thrace went along as his ‘adviser’ – in reality, the person who would direct most of the space combat.

Unluckily for Prince Henry and Thrace, his father gave him a fleet consisting of old ships, crewed by the dregs of the service. (It isn’t clear if this was an attempt to force his son to learn the ropes the hard way or a deliberate attempt to get rid of a presumptuous heir.) The early stages of the invasion threatened to be disastrous. Thrace, however, devised tactics that would give the invaders an advantage, as well as beating the crews into shape. (Sometimes literally – one of the charges levelled against Thrace during his court martial stated that he had beaten his own crews.) The invasion was a success, giving the Prince lands and territory of his own. The fact that the invasion probably cost the empire more than it gained was tactfully left unmentioned.

In a show of thanks, Prince Henry arranged for Thrace to marry Lady Christina, one of the emperor’s many wards. It was not a match based on love, but they came to an understanding anyway – they had both been shunned by the court, although for different reasons. (Christina’s family had been implicated in an attempt to unseat the emperor – while she’d been a child at the time, no one dared to show her favour.) Their child was born nine months later.

Marital bliss didn’t last, however. Thrace was sent back to the border, where incidents with the Delphic Union were growing out of control. Expected to delay their offensive, Thrace successfully counterattacked and stalled their drive into the empire … despite facing newer and better enemy weapons. Unfortunately, it also sowed the seeds of later trouble – his decision to deny Edward Patterson a command of his own would come back to haunt him during the civil war.

Prince Henry returned to the front, just in time to take nominal control of the offensive into enemy space. (Thrace remained in actual command.) The offensive was successful, but Prince Henry was killed by enemy treachery. (It was often suggested, after the civil war, that Edward Patterson deliberately arranged for the prince’s death, but this has never been proved.) Organising the remains of the Delphic Union, Thrace was horrified to hear that he had been blamed for the prince’s death and recalled to Earth. His wife sent him a message warning that he had been tried and sentenced to death.

It isn’t clear why the Emperor signed the death warrant. On one hand, it is possible he grieved for his son. Prince Henry had been demanding more and more power for himself, but there is no suggestion he ever seriously intended to overthrow his father. But on the other hand, he may well have seen the empire’s most successful military leader (and one who had married into the aristocracy) as a potential threat. The conquest of the Delphic Union had turned Thrace into a galactic hero. The sheer unpopularity of the empire might have prompted someone to try to put Thrace on the throne. (And, in hindsight, it is clear that some of the reports from the front had been deliberately slanted.)

Not the sort of person to put up with this – and believing himself to be the victim of court politics – Thrace instead took his entire fleet back to Earth. A series of running battles followed as the emperor tried desperately to slow his advance, only to watch helplessly as world after world fell to the rogue general. As Thrace seemed unstoppable, hundreds of aristocrats and politicians started to switch sides. Even the discovery of treachery – Edward Patterson had intended to start a full-blown civil war – didn’t stop the offensive. The emperor took poison – Princess Sofia took much of the fleet (and her youngest sister, Princess Tamara) and retreated into the hinterlands – as Earth itself fell to Thrace.

The Imperial Senate declared Thrace the new Emperor and formally condemned Princess (now Empress) Sofia. It was a move they would come to regret. Thrace had a long list of politicians (and uniformed politicians) he wanted to remove. They were purged rapidly, followed by the institution of a whole series of reforms. Thrace had never forgotten how the worlds along the Rim had been exploited, nor how so many of them had eagerly supported the enemy during the war. While the court had planned to load punishments on the colonials, Thrace had other ideas. Any hope of making peace with the court was rapidly lost.

He was not – and never would be – someone at ease with political wheeling and dealing in the Imperial Parliament. It didn’t help that he knew Princess Sofia was gathering her strength to continue the civil war. A succession of Prime Ministers followed, while Thrace tried to prevent the civil war from growing worse. And yet, everything he did only made him more enemies. It was almost a relief when Princess Sofia launched her offensive, allowing Thrace the chance to take command of the fleet and head out to do battle. Unknown to him, the politicians had planned a coup – and, also unknown to him, the colonials intended to head it off at the pass. Earth turned into a war zone as various forces fought it out for supremacy.

Thrace defeated Princess Sofia in a major battle and drove her forces back, capturing her sister. He returned to discover the situation on Earth had turned into a nightmare. Luckily, he was able to use it as an excuse to completely reshape the Imperial Parliament and hammer out a peace and gunpoint. His son would be married to Princess Tamara and inherit the crown, serving as the basis for a constitutional monarchy.

It was just in time. The civil war had grown worse. Sofia, unfazed by her defeat, tried again – this time, launching a fleet directly at Earth. Thrace took command of the defence while his loyal supporters took the empire itself, putting the reforms into place. Thrace met Sofia in battle, where they were both – seemingly – killed. His son became Emperor in his place …

… But did Thrace really die? No one knows for sure …

Updates …

23 Jan

Hi, everyone …

Well, here we are in KL – again. The jet lag was terrible this time, although I’m not really sure why. Maybe we shouldn’t have tried to sleep so much on the plane. And this afternoon the skies opened and rain came tumbling down …

Apart from that, I have finished the first draft of The Zero Blessing and done the edits. I’ve sent it off to the agent, partly to see what will happen. I do have a plan for two sequels – The Zero Curse and The Zero Equation – but writing them will depend on how things go (and sales, of course.)

Sales and reviews of The Sergeant’s Apprentice have been very good <grin>. You can also pre-order The School of Hard Knocks on audio now (due out 31/1/2016).

The next project is The Long Road Home, Book IV of A Learning Experience. I hope to start in February, after we get home.

The Long Road Home Large txt

On the downside, I’m still unsure about the plotline for Wolf’s Bane. I may need to rethink it several times … <sigh>


Ethnic and Racial Diversity in Harry Potter

22 Jan

I make no pretence that any of this is original. It grew out of a conversation I was having with a friend about authorial politics vs. the unavoidable implications of their settings.

One of the fundamental problems with any rational analysis of Harry Potter is that much of the series isn’t rational. Large parts of the Wizarding World don’t seem to make much sense, even when viewed as a quasi-medieval society rather than a variant on modern Britain. The simple fact that magic has remained a secret from the vast majority of Muggle society – even ‘now’ – implies that wizards are both extremely proactive in hiding themselves and extremely rare. These points are both supported by the books.

Let us consider, for a start, the problem of getting nations that have interests in common to cooperate. It isn’t easy, not in the real world. And yet we are told that wizards remain hidden on a global scale – and not just wizards, but dragons, goblins, giants, centaurs and many other outright non-human beings. This requires a degree of international (magical) cooperation that may be the greatest piece of fiction in the series! Indeed, while witches might have been hunted across Europe (with reason, in the series), other societies respected their magic-users and their wizards couldn’t be expected to abandon their traditions and go into hiding without some fairly strong incentive.

This leads to three separate possibilities:

First, there were no non-European wizards, save for the occasional muggleborn. European Wizards followed European Muggles as they swept the globe, setting up satellite communities near Muggle colonies. The handful of muggleborns they discovered were abducted and assimilated. Over the years, these cultures indulged in a little cultural appropriation to give themselves a separate character to their homelands.

Second, European Wizards made a major magical breakthrough (the wand?) that allowed them to invade non-European magical settlements and force them to go into hiding. Groups that agreed to surrender were offered a seat at the table, groups that insisted on fighting were brutally crushed. The British campaigns against the Thugs in India, for example, might have been targeted on rogue magic-users as well as barbaric … well, thugs. Over the years, the newcomers integrated with the original population, a process made easier by the Wizarding World’s general lack of racism (at least racism directed against human wizards.)

Third, there were non-European communities that accepted the European belief that wizards needed to go into hiding and worked to make it happen.

Call me a cynic, but I would bet on either one or two.

Now, coming to the issue of Wizarding Britain.

It is a terrible mistake to assume that the racial and ethnic characteristics of the general population are automatically mirrored in a smaller subset. The Amish, for example, are generally white; British Muslims are (roughly) seventy percent East Asian (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis). By this standard, the Wizarding World would count as a small – very small – subset of the population.

In Harry’s year in Gryffindor, there are ten pupils: five boys and five girls. Assuming this number is matched by the other three houses, there are forty pupils in Harry’s overall year and a total student population (40*7) of 280 at Hogwarts. If we therefore assume that wizards, on average, live around 100 years, we have a rough total of 4000 wizards in Wizarding Britain. The Wizarding World includes a number of others – homeschooled wizards, werewolves, squibs, etc – so we may as well assume that the total overall population is around 5000 in all.

On one hand, there was a major war going on when Harry was born and, proportionally, the losses inflicted on the magical population were probably quite high. But, on the other hand, it’s quite likely that the population of the Wizarding World remained fairly stable for centuries prior to the war. The combination of magical birth control and female emancipation probably played a major role in ensuring that the average birthrate was (barely) enough to keep the population from falling sharply.

Indeed, most of the pureblood families we see in the books have only one or two children (the Weasley family is perhaps the only major exception). Draco and James Potter, for example, were both only children, while Sirius Black had a single brother. I can’t recall any mention of a family larger than three children, save for the Weasleys.

This – and a few other factors – have interesting effects on the Wizarding World.

First, nearly every witch and wizard in Britain goes to Hogwarts. Wizarding Britain is thus more of a large town than a giant community. Everyone will speak the same language. The in-jokes will not change. Culture will be near-universal, with no room for smaller subgroups. There will be very few true strangers in Wizarding Britain. Even if you don’t know someone personally, you’ll know someone who knows them. Indeed, all the students at Hogwarts will probably know everyone in their age group and (probably) two or three years in each direction.

This may not be an advantage. People like Hermione – who has a remarkable talent for putting peoples noses out of joint – may find their reputation follows them after they graduate from school. Something like this may have bedevilled Professor Snape.

Second, most witches and wizards will probably marry other witches and wizards. Non-wizard marriage (i.e. to Muggles) is socially discouraged, even if it isn’t formally banned outright. (Even the Weasleys, the most tolerant pureblood wizards in canon, don’t marry outside the magical community.) Such marriages may not even last, once the secret is revealed. Indeed, the demand for secrecy may well ruin such matches before they can even begin.

What this means is that Wizarding Britain is a relatively small community with a relatively small influx of new blood.

We know from canon that Wizarding Britain is actually subdivided into purebloods, halfbloods and muggleborns. Purebloods must have four magical grandparents – ideally, they should also be able to claim a pure linage going back as far as possible. This actually provides a strong incentive to marry within the community, rather than embracing new (or non-magical) blood. Harry and Ginny’s children will count as purebloods, but Ron and Hermione’s children will not. (Note that Ron is the only known member of his family to marry a muggleborn.)

(The disadvantage of this, of course, is that inbreeding will become a serious problem sooner or later.)

Simple logic tells us, therefore, that there will be relatively little racial diversity amongst the older purebloods. There is no suggestion that the vast majority of purebloods, particularly those of older families, are anything other than white. Nor will there be much ethnic diversity, in the common sense. Everyone who enters Wizarding Britain will have gone through Hogwarts and picked up much of the local culture.

There’s an additional point here that may have shaped Wizarding Britain. Wizards have a huge superiority complex – and, for much of the last thousand years, they would have been right. I suspect that Wizarding Britain’s standard of living was vastly superior to Muggle Britain until comparatively recently. Muggleborns may have had no inclination to rock the boat because they had it much better, amongst the wizards, than they did at home.

How, then, to account for the known non-white characters?

It’s possible that the Indian twins and Cho Chang (the name isn’t actually Chinese) are the daughters of purebloods from India and China respectively. They would probably be counted as purebloods, even if their parents and grandparents weren’t native to Wizarding Britain – I would guess they’re actually second-generation immigrants, given that they don’t seem to be that culturally different to the rest of the students. Dean Thomas is a halfblood – presumably, his mother was black. Kingsley Shacklebolt is the only one who doesn’t seem to fit in – although, again, he may be the descendent of immigrants.

The people who accuse Rowling of portraying an all-white world, without much ethnic and racial diversity, are wrong. The (largely) white population and complete cultural hegemony of Wizarding Britain is an artefact of its social system.

Dealing With The Consequences of Your Own Stupidity II

21 Jan

Read the first version of this post – on BREXIT – here.

If you listen, you can hear the questions echoing around the echo-chambers of the left.

Why Trump?

Why President Donald Trump?

Why did Donald Trump win the election?

What were they thinking?

Over the last few months, I’ve tried to explain why I thought Donald Trump had an excellent chance of winning the election and, after the election, to try to explain why he won. In hindsight, I think that most of my answers were generally accurate. Trump was a fighter, which the Republican base loved; Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate, with so many problems that – in the end – it’s hard to say which one really brought her own. And now, with riots on the streets, I think the average American has good reason to be relieved that Clinton and her cronies lost. What would they have done if they’d won?

But I think there is a more fundamental reason why Clinton – and everything she represented – was rejected. And, in many ways, it’s deeply personal.

If you want to guarantee that I will not pay any attention to you, there are three easy ways to do it:

-Talk to me like I’m a child.

-Talk to me like I’m an idiot.

-Talk to me as though my opinions don’t matter.

The problem with the first two should be obvious. No one likes being treated as either a child or an idiot. This is all the more important when the person doing it doesn’t really understand what’s going on. If someone condemns me for putting my books on kindle, rather than waiting for an elusive shot with a big publisher, that’s a fairly clear sign that that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. That doesn’t necessary mean they’re trying to deliberately mislead me, but it strongly suggests that their opinions are of limited value.

This problem did serious damage to Hillary’s campaign. If someone believes, genuinely believes, that Trump’s supporters are idiots (or racists, or sexists, or bigots, etc) it undermines their ability to understand how Trump’s supporters tick. Worse, it makes it hard to consider that they don’t consider themselves to be idiots (etc) and that they may have reason to support Trump. For example, if one has no qualifications and no prospect of getting them, they will not support immigration because these equally unqualified immigrants are the competition!

But this leads neatly to the third issue.

An individual Trump (or Hillary) voter is immaterial, in the grand scheme of things. One vote isn’t likely to make much of a difference. But a mass of voters spread across the states can and will make a difference. Hillary did not need to win the popular vote (whining to the contrary aside). She needed to take a majority of the states. In doing so, she had to pitch her appeal to as many states as possible and refrain from things guaranteed to upset fence-sitting voters.

In this sense, calling a vast number of Americans ‘deplorables’ was a colossal own goal.

On one hand, it convinced countless thousands of Americans that voting for Trump was a strike against a woman who had never made any secret of her disdain for the average American (and his intelligence). On the other hand, it called Hillary’s judgement into question. What sort of idiot insults hundreds of thousands of people who might – might – be turned away from Trump? Even a pretence at empathy (as Bill Clinton correctly noted) would have given Hillary a better shot at the White House.

If you are dependent on someone – and politicians are dependent on voters to elect them – it is sheer stupidity to alienate them. Or, for that matter, to convince them that your judgement is basically faulty. And that is exactly what Hillary did.

But the problem goes far beyond Hillary Clinton.

Over the last twenty years, the political elites have grown more and more detached from the populations they rule. And, as the distance between the people at the top and the people at ground zero has grown wider and wider, their decision-making has become increasingly poor, based more on untested theories and an idealistic view of the world rather than what is actually happening. The great unwashed – everyone else, in other words – has become more and more aware of the disparity between what we are told and what we see. For example:

Claim: Minimum wage laws are good for employees.

Observable Reality: Minimum wage laws destroy small businesses and cause unemployment.

Claim: Government regulations and bureaucracy are good.

Observable Reality: Government regulations and bureaucracy destroy small businesses and ruin lives.

Claim: Affirmative Action is good for society.

Observable Reality: Affirmative Action is bad for everyone, particularly the people it claims to help.

Claim: illegal immigration is really no different from legal immigration.

Observable Reality: illegal immigration is a crime that goes unpunished.

Claim: Identity politics are an important part of social justice and therefore good for society.

Observable Reality: Identity politics are tearing society apart.

Claim: If we don’t provoke our enemies, they won’t attack us. And when they do attack us, its somehow our fault.

Observable Reality: Weakness invites attack.

I could go on, but why bother? All that really matters – now – is that a growing number of people are no longer listening to the elites. Why should they?

Trump’s ‘surprising’ election is merely the latest stage of an ongoing rebellion against the political elites. And part of the reason this rebellion is underway is because the political elites have failed. They have lost their grip on events, to the point where they have become both self-interested and unable to even comprehend why others might disagree. Their mistakes – and their complete refusal to admit they were mistakes – led directly to the election of Donald Trump.

This is not the time to insist that Donald Trump is not a ‘legitimate’ president. Trump won by the rules. Nor is this the time to demand that the rules be changed to handicap any future challengers. This is the time for the elites to get out of their gated communities and get back in touch with the rest of the population …

… Or resign themselves to permanent irreverence as the world goes on.

OUT NOW– The Sergeant’s Apprentice (Schooled In Magic XI)

7 Jan

Sergeants Apprentice Cover

The Nameless World Goes to War!

The necromancers have finally resumed their assault on the Allied Lands, sending a mighty army across the Desert of Death and into the Kingdom of Tarsier. Countless farms, villages and towns have already been destroyed as the host makes its way northwards, striking deep into the kingdom’s most vulnerable lands. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, thousands more will be killed when they are sacrificed for power. If the necromancers win the coming battle, it may be the beginning of the end …

When Sergeant Miles invites her to join the coalition force, Emily reluctantly accepts. The necromancers have to be stopped, even if it means taking time off from school to serve as the sergeant’s apprentice. But with arguing aristocrats, reluctant soldiers, fearful civilians, shadows from her past, a dangerously-sane necromancer and treachery in the ranks, stopping the invasion may cost Emily her life …

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then download from the links on this page!

Guest Snippet -Alpha and Omega, by Stephanie Osborn

7 Jan

If you liked Men in Black, you might like …


Excerpt from

Division One book 1,

Alpha and Omega – by Stephanie Osborn

* * *

* * *

“I don’t get it,” said Romeo from his seat in the training observation room. “Y’all didn’t put ME through all this testing crap. Creativity testing and obstacle courses and puzzles an’ junk. I know we’re shorthanded an’ all, but…what gives? It’d be way simpler an’ quicker to just put her through the old testing.”

“We’re getting ready to start up a new department,” answered Fox, across the small conference table from Romeo; next to the younger agent sat his new partner, India. “Echo’s already agreed to head it up, while you were laid up with the leg. Good to see you off the crutches, by the way.”

“Damn good to be off ‘em. Still hobblin’ around a little, but that’ll go away eventually; ‘s why I’m keepin’ a cane handy for a while. So tell me about this new department. If you can, yet.”

“I can. It’ll be a kind of combination SWAT team and commando unit. Teams from this department will take the point whenever we have the really dangerous situations—the interstellar terrorists, the galactic invasions, things like that. We think, with her background, she may have what it takes to make it in this department. We sure as hell can’t send her back where she came from. She seems intrigued by the idea, at least. And no family complications to worry about. Single, only child, birth family gone in a car accident.”

“But, Fox, what if she can’t hang?”

“I don’t know yet, Romeo. We’ll cross that bridge—”

“We won’t have to,” interrupted Echo, coming into the testing observation room and moving past the table around which the others were seated, directly to the observing window. “She’ll make it.”

“But how do you know?” asked Romeo. “‘Got a feeling’?”

“Yup. Same one I had about you, junior.”

“WELL, the lady’ll hang, then.” Romeo sat back in his chair, satisfied.

“Damn,” muttered India.

Echo shot her a hard look, then returned his attention to the observation window overlooking the course.

“Have we started yet?”

“No,” Fox answered. “We’re still getting set up. And we were waiting for you.”

“I’m here. Let’s get rolling.”

“Done.” Fox hit a button on an adjacent control console.

Romeo, Echo, and India watched as the observation window, as well as a hooded monitor on the command console, showed several aliens of various types entering the obstacle course. Romeo gasped as he recognized a Betelgeusian giant arachnoid, possessing, by his estimate, a good fourteen-or fifteen-foot leg span—accompanied by several Division One agents sporting flamethrowers, lasers, blasters, and disintegrator rifles, entering the course. Two heavily-armed guards in black armor moved into position at the entrance. Romeo and India noticed then, with a shock, that they were FACING the course, as if the concern was from something inside.

“Hope she’s not afraid of spiders,” Echo remarked offhandedly.

“Hope she’s not afraid of death,” Romeo murmured to India. “Shit.”

* * *

Megan came into the observation room just then. She was wearing black workout leggings and sports-bra top, but the rest of her attire was somewhat odd: menswear-style black lace-up dress shoes, a black tie, a dress leather belt, and a pair of the special goggles-cum-sunglasses strapped to one hip. An unusual device, like a large plastic bangle bracelet, was fastened around her right ankle. Sensors attached to her head and torso connected to a small transmitter pack on her back. Echo met her and led her to the command console.

“All right, Megan,” Fox began, waving a hand at the view in the monitor, which now only depicted a door and two guards, “this is the obstacle course. When you go through that door,” he pointed to the image of the guarded door on the monitor, “you will enter the first of a series of six rooms, each of which has various…impediments…to your progress. Your objective is simply to reach the exit of room six as quickly as possible. The tracking device on your ankle will enable us to monitor your progress. You may make use of anything on your person, as well as anything you find along the course. In addition, you may select from one—and only one—of the items on this side table.”

Megan eyed the monitor display in detail before Fox led her over to the table. On it was an eclectic collection of items: a Phillips-head screwdriver, a small glass bottle, a pair of wire cutters, a coil of rope, a pen knife, a jar of cheese spread, a pocket-sized Winchester & Tesla Mark II death ray, a packet of facial tissues, and a chocolate bar.

Megan was in no rush. She scanned the table carefully, considering, as the four Division One agents watched. She looked herself up and down, fingering the items she already carried. Echo watched as she flipped over the tie and checked to see what was on the label. He smiled inwardly, pleased as he followed her mental processes, realizing he understood how she thought. Finally she reached out, picked up the pen knife, and clipped it to the belt at her waist.

Echo raised an eyebrow in carefully-hidden surprise and looked at Fox, who returned his gaze unemotionally. Romeo and India watched the whole scene in amazement.

“Ready, then?” Fox asked Megan.

“As I’ll ever be.”

“All right. Follow me.”

As Fox led Megan out, Echo turned to the console, put on a headset, and began entering commands. Romeo and India walked up to the observation window, and Echo hit a button. Blast shutters on the window began to close.

“Sorry, kids. Can’t watch this one; you’ll have to go through this yourselves soon enough.”

“Oh, joy,” India muttered.

“You can monitor her progress on this schematic.” Echo hit another sequence of commands, and a panel opened on the wall. It showed the layout of six variously-shaped, interconnected rooms, a number on each room.

“How are you gonna evaluate her if you can’t see what she’s doing?” Romeo asked him, as he and India sat back down at the table, across from the schematic.

“I didn’t say Fox and I couldn’t watch. I’ve been through it. You haven’t. Yet.”

Fox re-entered the room. “She’s ready, Echo.”

“All right, then.” Echo handed Fox another headset, then keyed the microphone switch. “Megan? GO!”

* * *

The door opened, but Megan was in no hurry to charge through it. Any obstacle course that had a funky-looking little weapon like that strange pocket-sized ray gun as one of the equipment options was not one into which she intended to go running headlong. Let alone the armed guards stationed around it. So she eased around the left side of the doorframe, surveying the room from the threshold.

How odd, she thought, as she scanned the room; it looks like an ordinary study: hardwood floors, bookcases lining the walls, cozy fireplace on the far side, with a wing chair and decorative wrought iron side table next to it.

A heavy walnut desk with granite top stood in the center; a lamp and crystal decanter sat on one corner. Waterford crystal, it looks like. An EXPENSIVE study, then.

The door into the next room was in the far wall, to the right of the fireplace.

She stepped forward into the room.

* * *

Romeo and India watched the display as the first block lit up with a big red ‘1.’ Echo and Fox leaned together over the screened closed-circuit monitor.

“She’s in,” Echo observed.

“Aaannd the timers have started,” Fox noted. “Both of ‘em.”

India and Romeo exchanged glances…and thoughts. BOTH of ‘em?

* * *

Megan had taken no more than two steps into the room when she heard a faint, almost inaudible click off to the left. Quickly spinning, she saw bookcase holograms fade away to reveal a blank wall with horizontal slits halfway up. Oh shit, she had just time to think. She dropped flat on the floor as a flurry of projectiles whistled through the space she had occupied fractions of a second before.

Suddenly the fireplace roared, belching a tongue of flame into the room. She rolled to her right, out of its reach, in the barest nick of time. Another projectile barrage opened up. Scanning the room, she swiftly combat-crawled over to and under the desk, where she caught her breath as she analyzed her situation.

* * *

“She actually heard that,” Echo remarked in surprise. “Damn. I knew her ears were pretty sharp, but wow.”

“Pulse, one-twenty and steady; blood pressure, 130 over 90,” Fox read off the sensor readouts. “Respiration, twenty-three. High left hemispheric encephalographic activity. Trigger the plasma jet, Echo.”

Romeo and India spun around and stared in dismay at the two calm men. Plasma jet?!

* * *

A faint whine was the only warning Megan got before the plasma cannon behind the right-hand wall opened up. She crouched farther back, under the desk, until its initial salvo was complete. Then, in a momentary lull between projectile bank, flame-throwing fireplace, and plasma cannon, she reached up with her right hand, over the desktop, and grabbed for the decanter she had seen there. Miraculously, it was unbroken, having been below the level of the projectile barrage. She unstoppered it and sniffed the decanter mouth. Brandy. Perfect. She put on the special glasses.

She timed her next move carefully. In the split-second after the projectile weapons fired, while the plasma cannon built to discharge again, she emerged from her cover and flung the stoppered decanter with all the force and accuracy she could muster, straight at the plasma gun, then she turned and pushed with all her might against the back of the desk.

The desk slid across the polished floor just as the crystal decanter crashed into the now-firing cannon…and exploded. The improvised Molotov cocktail melted the circuitry and ignited the fuel tank, sending a geyser of flame out into the center of the room. But the desk was no longer in the center. Instead, it was now overturned, with its substantial polished granite top largely blocking the flame-throwing fireplace.

Megan held her breath, closed her eyes, and crouched in the desk’s opening until the flames from the plasma cannon subsided and the current round of projectile barrage ceased. Then, slightly singed, she scuttled on elbows and knees behind the wing chair. She overturned the marble-and-iron side table, heedless of the useless trinkets which tumbled off it, and caught it up in her left hand, holding it by the wrought iron pedestal. Using the tabletop as a shield, she moved up into a crouch, ducking behind it when the next round of missiles opened up.

“Aahh! Dammit!” A ricochet off the nearby marble mantelpiece winged her right shoulder. But she had reached the exit door. Still shielding herself with the table, she tapped the door handle warily with her right hand; no booby traps. She opened it; stepped sideways to her right…

* * *

Block 2 of the schematic lit up.

“Pulse, one-thirty and rising; BP, 135 over 92; respiration twenty-five. Hemispheric activity high and equally dominant,” Fox called out.

“Staying calm, thinking fast and getting creative. Great. Fox, did we get the fumes vented properly?” Echo asked, glancing over his shoulder at the two younger agents, so very intent on the largely-blank schematic, with a grin. Good idea Fox had, letting them see only a small part of the test. Ups the ante for ‘em, and gives us a chance to see how THEY react to the pressure.

“Yeah, no problem,” Fox responded. “Didn’t want it building to potentially dangerous levels, anyway.”

* * *

Fumes? What kind of fumes? Romeo and India sat staring, unbelieving, at the schematic while listening to the two men. WE’RE gonna have to go through this?

“How’s she doing?” Echo asked.

“If she maintains this pace, she’ll equal the record,” Fox responded.

“Dayum! Who set it?” exclaimed Romeo.

“I did, about six months ago,” Echo remarked, offhanded, his attention never wavering from the lithe figure going through its paces on the monitor.

* * *

This room was a formal dining room, of all things, complete with chandeliers and elegantly-set banquet table. Funny notions they have about obstacle courses, Megan thought. Whatever she had been expecting, so far this wasn’t it.

Megan discarded the side table and moved cautiously into the room, on the lookout for booby traps now. Her nose caught it first: an acrid, pungent odor. Then she saw the wisps of vapor rising from the floor.

“Acid!” she cried out in horror. The flooring was being eaten away underneath her.

Do they really want to kill me? I didn’t think that Echo-guy would’ve…but at least they would be rid of an eyewitness. Damn. Is this all just a set-up, then? An excuse for knocking me off? I am in such trouble…

An adrenalin-propelled standing leap took her to the near end of the banquet tabletop, irrespective of china and crystal, which tumbled this way and that, shattering. The way out, an open archway, was at the opposite end of the long table, but the opening was far out of reach of her ability to jump. The floor was now out of the question; large holes were starting to appear in it, a bubbling fluid underneath. She looked up.

The row of chandeliers ran almost the entire length of the oblong room, and were of the ornate Victorian candelabra style. Jumping up, Megan caught onto the one overhead and swung on it, tugging, testing. Strong enough, but not far enough, she thought, easing back down to the tabletop. If they only hung a little bit lower…

Abruptly, the table dropped out from under her, lowering by a full six inches, as what was left of the floor gave way. Megan lost her footing and fell, smashing china and sliding across the polished wood, over the edge. Digging her fingernails into the wood, she halted herself, her bent knees mere inches from the acid that now pooled around the bottom of the table. She slowly clawed her way back onto the tabletop. At least now I know how deep the acid is…

Suddenly, she whipped off her tie and belt. She threaded the leather belt through its buckle, making a loop, then used the pen knife to enlarge the last belt notch. Replacing the pen knife securely on her hip, where it clipped to the waistband of her leggings next to the glasses case, she quickly threaded the small end of the silk tie through the hole in the belt and knotted it firmly, jerking it hard to test it. Then she ran to the far end of the tabletop. She didn’t know if it would hold, but there was no time to change her mind. The table legs were starting to disintegrate now.

“Hope the farm skills are still with me,” she muttered as she swung the makeshift lasso.

The leather loop caught a prong of the chandelier, and Megan jerked it tight. Backing up as far as her improvised rope would allow, she made a running start, then swung forward.

No time to check the next room, she thought as she swung through the air. I just hope I hit the door opening straight, or this is gonna hurt bad…

“BANZAI!” she yelled as she reached the top of her arc and let go, flying head-first, arms stretched out in front, hands fisted, through the open doorway.

* * *

“Wow. Nice Superman jump,” Echo noted with a grin.

“Yeah, I liked it too,” Fox agreed, nodding.

Romeo and India just stared at the two men in consternation.

* * *

As soon as she was well through the opening, Megan realized she was in a bad way. Landing hard, she rolled, looked up, and blanched. At the far end of the room crouched a giant, hairy, black spider-like creature, with a leg-spread of at least fifteen feet, in a huge cage. To Megan’s horror, the front of the cage began to slide slowly up.

“Spiders. Dammit. I hate spiders. Why did it have to be spiders?” she muttered.

* * *

Alpha and Omega (Division One)

First in an ongoing series about the adventures of Alpha Line available now for preorder on Kindle with a release date of January 10, 2017.

Buy here

Alpha and Omega
© 2017 Stephanie Osborn
ISBN 978-0-9982888-1-9 (print)
ISBN 978-0-9982888-0-2 (ebook)
Cover art © 2017 Darrell Osborn
First electronic edition 2017
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher. All trademarks are property of their respective owners.
This is a work of fiction. All concepts, characters and events portrayed in this book are used fictitiously and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
Chromosphere Press
P.O. Box 3412
Huntsville, AL 35810

The Need For Balance

3 Jan

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

-CS Lewis

This isn’t what I was planning to write, but with 2016 now over I think it merits examination.

What, if I may start with a question, is the difference between fascism and communism?

There isn’t one, save for the lies told to maintain the system.

I think a few people may disagree with that assertion, but I think it is basically true. Fascism is a system in which all the resources of the nation are bent towards the needs of the state, a command economy where individuals are seen as nothing more than interchangeable nuts and bolts. Communism is a system where all the resources of the nation are gathered up by the state and used to serve the people, a command economy where – in theory – “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” In both cases, the important issue is that there is a command economy (in the belief that a person or group of persons with absolute power can fix everything) – and that such an economy invariably brings dictatorship.

Why? People don’t like having their goods and produce confiscated, either for the good of the state or for the benefit of faceless masses they don’t know. The leaders of the society, therefore, have to choose between building enforcement arms (the Gestapo, the NKVD/KGB, assorted religious police forces) or accepting the collapse of their society. In almost all cases, particularly when the leaders are unable to back down (they’re ideologically driven or at risk of being brutally lynched), they choose to build the enforcement arms and use them. If they haven’t already developed bad habits, they do now. Violence and brutality lead to corruption and social decay.

And at that point, they are either already dominated by a dictator or a power-hungry official is readying his bid to take over.

The lies told to the public are different, of course. Hitler spoke of the Fatherland; Lenin and Stalin spoke of socialism and communism; Khomeini spoke of Islam (Islamism is effectively a form of fascism). Some dictatorships are more successful than others. But the underlying truth is that extremism – whatever the political/religious base – eventually leads to tyranny. One may argue that fascism is more honest than communism (or Islamism) From the point of view of the people groaning under its weight, it hardly matters. All that matters is survival – and eventually breaking the dictatorship.


Those of us on the right will recoil- and roll our eyes – when we hear a leftist suggesting that the eventual end result of right-wing politics will lead to a Somalia-like state. No laws, lots of guns, the strong bullying the weak … all in all, a pretty shitty place to live. And, like most childish arguments, it can be countered quite easily. The eventual end result of left-wing politics will lead to a Soviet Union-like state: lots of laws, no guns, the strong bullying the weak … all in all, a pretty shitty place to live.

Both arguments miss the point. There is a need for balance between the right and the left (insofar as such terms are useful these days), between freedom and security, between rights and responsibilities, between individuals and governments. And it is that balance which is steadily being eroded into nothingness.

My regular readers know that my wife and I (and our son) divide our time between Britain and Malaysia. Britain is, in many ways, an over-regulated society; Malaysia, by contrast, is an under-regulated society.

Here’s a very simple example. The place we rented last year was a two-story apartment – we had the bottom, someone else had the top. They also had a garden. During our stay, the people above us did a number of relatively small modifications to their driveway and garden. None of our business, you might think? That didn’t stop the local council from sending notes around asking if we had any concerns or objections before granting planning permission. I don’t think that any reasonable mishaps during construction would have posed a threat to either the building or us personally. And yet getting planning permission – and completion certificates – is a bureaucratic hassle.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that there might have been a threat to our house (which we didn’t actually own). But there was none. The owners owned the property. And yet they still had to grovel to the council for permission to make even a minor set of changes! If they had wanted to do something which did pose a threat, it would be a different matter. But they didn’t.

In Malaysia, things are different. Planning permission is a joke. No one gives much of a damn if landlords change things at whim. But there’s also a significant lack of safety standards and feasibility studies. On one hand, near Kuala Lumpur, there are a number of homes and shopping malls that stand empty, that will probably never be filled; on the other, there have been reports of houses, shops and even stadiums collapsing because the builders skimped on the materials. Many places I have visited, in Malaysia, struck me as terrifyingly unsafe.

There has to be balance.

Consider tolerance, for example. It’s a virtue, right? And yes, there is something to be said for being tolerant – particularly of things that don’t actually affect you. But it is extremely dangerous to tolerate intolerance, to tolerate things that pose a very real threat to the rest of the population. Where does one draw the line?

People have the right, IMHO, to do whatever they like, as long as it is done between consenting adults in private. Maybe it’s a bad choice – and there’s no promise of happiness -but it’s theirs to make. But what happens when it isn’t between consenting adults in private? And I don’t just mean sex. What about guns or drugs or religion? A person may have the right to drink, but they don’t have the right to try to drive home afterwards. And yet, what if they claim they do? Or what if a person’s religion demands intolerance? Or what if …

This isn’t a question many find comfortable. Indeed, there are factions on the right that love drawing lines and factions on the left that refuse to even consider drawing lines. And vice versa. There is, again, a need for balance.

Politeness is another issue. People should be polite to one another. But, at the same time, people should not hesitate to call out problems, to challenge others over issues that need to be discussed, even – perhaps especially – if they make people uncomfortable. Declaring entire regions off-limits for rational discussion is not helpful.

And while too many government regulations can be lethal, so too can too few.

There is a need for balance, a need to keep society stable. And both sides of our increasingly fractured political system have forgotten that. Indeed, in an era where compromise is regarded as a sign of weakness, even those who remember that are reluctant to try to compromise for fear it will be used against them.

Society is a pendulum. If pulled too far to one side, it swings back to the other twice as hard.

Snippet–The Zero Blessing

3 Jan

Hi, everyone …

First, I would like to wish you all a happy new year.

And, to start off the new year, I’ve decided to try to write a YA story (sort of the same age group as Harry Potter and The Rithmathist) called The Zero Blessing. As you will see, when you read it, it really started as a planned SIM spin-off, but as I had the great idea four books into SIM it was too late to shoehorn it in. <rolls eyes>. So TZB is really a stand-alone novel.

As always, comments, spelling corrections, etc are warmly welcomed.

As this is primarily meant for younger readers, please could you also keep an eye out for things that might not be appropriate for them.

Thank you



I suppose I should start at the beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start.

My sisters and I are triplets, fraternal triplets. We don’t really look that much alike, although we all have dad’s dark eyes and mum’s silky smooth hair. Alana is so pretty you’d think she’d been glamoured; Belladonna would be pretty if she took more exercise and bothered to put some work into her appearance; I, always in the middle, look more like a tomboy than anything else. You probably wouldn’t think we were twins if you passed us on the street, that we were born on the same day. But we were.

Our parents – Joaquin and Sofia Aguirre – are two of the most powerful magicians in Shallot, if not the kingdom. Dad’s a skilled enchanter with a whole string of apprentices working under him; mum’s the best potions brewer in the world. Having three children – three triplets – is a big thing for them. The magic grows stronger, we are told, when children are born and raised together. My sisters and I should have safeguarded the family’s inheritance for the next generation. Instead …

We were seven years old when it happened.

We’d had a birthday party, of course. Lots of presents, lots of sweet foods and a big cake dedicated to the three of us. Our friends came round and we had a great time, but our excitement was dulled by the knowledge of what would come afterwards. Dad had been talking about teaching us magic for some time – we’d already learnt some of the background knowledge taught to every magical child in the kingdom – and today we were going to start. I was excited. We all were. We’d seen Dad work wonders, ever since we were old enough to understand. We couldn’t wait to work wonders ourselves.

And so, when the party was over and the guests had gone, we walked into Dad’s study and sat down at the table. The tools were already waiting for us.

Magic is common, very common, in our world. It’s a rare person indeed who cannot master a basic firestarter, a water-cleaner or the other housekeeping spells listed in 1001 Spells For Practical Work. Fishwives use them to clean the air; broadsheet writers use them to send messages right across the kingdom. But magic, like music, requires talent. Anyone can learn to tap out a tune on the piano, but playing properly is hard. So it is with magic. The sooner you start learning, the better you’ll be.

I was so excited that I could barely contain myself as I picked up the tool. It didn’t look like very much – it was really nothing more than a silver pen – but it was the key to a whole new world. If I could learn how to use it, I could cast spells. And then I could use magic. Our parents had forbidden us from using magic in the past, when we were too young to know the dangers, but they would have to change their minds once we knew what we were doing. I couldn’t wait.

Alana went first, as always. She waved the tool in the air, as Dad ordered, and produced a stream of silver light. She giggled, then twisted the tool, changing the colour from silver to red and then gold. Her dark face crinkled into a genuine smile. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so utterly delighted than the moment she used magic for the first time. And I couldn’t wait to try it myself.

“It tickles,” Alana said.

“That’s your gift responding to the magic in the tool,” Dad said.

Belladonna went next, waving the tool casually in the air. Her eyes crinkled as nothing happened, just for a moment. Dad spoke to her gently, then told her to try again. This time, the light appeared, flickering in and out of existence as the magic weakened. Bella grimaced, then waved the tool a third time. The light grew stronger, floating in the air. Alana picked up her tool and wrote a word in the air, giggling. Dad shot her a quelling look before she could write something that would upset our mother.

“Your turn, Caitlyn,” Dad said.

I picked up the tool, feeling nothing but cool metal. An cold shiver ran down my spine. Alana had said the tool tickled, hadn’t she? Maybe she’d meant after she cast the spell. I held the tool in the air, silently promising myself that I was going to devote the rest of my life to magic studies, then waved it around.

Nothing happened.

Dad’s eyes narrowed. “Let the magic flow,” he ordered. In hindsight, it was clear that he’d realised that something was wrong. “Your instincts should guide you.”

“It’s easy,” Alana put in. “You can feel the magic.”

I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel anything. The tool still felt cold.

I took a deep breath, then tried again. Perhaps I’d been too excited to work the spell. We’d been taught basic breathing exercises, so I ran through them before lifting the tool and waving it in the air again. There should have been a line of light, hanging in the air. But there was nothing. I couldn’t even feel the magic.

“Hah,” Alana said. “She can’t do it.”

“Be silent,” Dad said.

Alana’s mouth closed with a snap. Our father is very even-tempered, most of the time, but when he gets mad … watch out. Normally, I would have enjoyed Alana’s discomfort; now, panic was bubbling at the back of my mind. What if I couldn’t work magic? Bella – lazy pudgy Bella – was drawing line after line in the air, giggling to herself as she sketched out faces. She couldn’t be doing better than me …

But she was.

I tried, again and again. Dad talked me through it, bit by bit. He even held my hand as I waved the tool, despite the risk of using his magic to power the spell. Mum came in and marched my sisters off, leaving us alone … nothing worked. I just couldn’t cast even a basic spell.

“I don’t know,” Dad said, finally. I could hear the disappointment in his voice, clawing at my heart. I loved my father and I had failed him. “We’ll keep trying …”

We did. We tried every day for a year, then once every week … nothing happened. I had no sensitivity to magic at all. My sisters learned to cast hundreds of spells; I sat in the back, reading books and trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Why was I different?

But I never found an answer until it was almost too late.

Chapter One

When our father wishes to punish us, he sends us to school.

Or so my sisters say, after spending four years of their lives in the classroom. They complain all the time, whining and moaning about having to walk to the school and learn about everything, but magic. Most magical children are homeschooled, but we had to go to school and learn. Alana hates it because she’s not learning about magic; Bella hates it because she’s not allowed to get away with not doing her work.

And me? I rather like it.

Not that I would have admitted it to them, of course. Alana blames me for us having to go, even though Dad was the one who sent us there. She thinks that my lack of magic is why we go to mundane school. Dad can’t teach us everything, can he? Mum taught us how to read and write, but they don’t have the time to teach us maths, history and all the other things normal children learn as they grow up. And while I could never work a single spell, I enjoyed studying magic and magical history. I wanted to be a historian before I grew up.

The school itself was a relatively small building, playing host to the children rich enough to afford an education, but lacking the magic or family connections they need to get an apprenticeship with a magician. Half of our classmates would leave at the end of the year, instead of going on to the upper school. My sisters would leave too, now we’d celebrated our twelfth birthday. This was their last day. They would be going to Jude’s Sorcerous Academy, where they’d learn how to turn their already-impressive magic into real sorcery. Dad had already booked their places. I envied then, even as I looked forward to being without them. Having two powerful sisters is a nightmare when you can’t even sense magic. I kept blundering into traps because I couldn’t see them.

The teacher, Madam Rosebud, was a middle-aged woman who eyed my sisters and I with dire suspicion, mingled with envy. I think she probably wanted to be a sorceress in her youth, but she lacked the talent to get some real education. She envied us for our easy magic – I don’t think she realised I didn’t have magic – and didn’t hesitate to point out our failings in front of the class. Dad had told us, in no uncertain terms, that we weren’t to use magic at school, but my sisters were good at intimidating their classmates. Hardly anyone dared to laugh.

“The difference between an Object of Power and a Device of Power is that Objects of Power last forever,” Oz droned. He was thirteen years old, kept back a year for failing the last set of exams. He was handsome enough, I suppose, but his voice was so boring that it put set the class to yawning. “They simply do not fail.”

I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes as Madam Rosebud’s baleful eyes moved from face to face. Oz was right, but really … I’d learnt about Objects of Power from Dad and Dad’s lessons were far more interesting. Dad’s apprentices are very skilled at making Devices of Power. And yet, nothing they make lasts longer than a year. I’d heard of swords, charmed to cut through anything in their path, that needed to be charmed again within months. Dad’s clients found it a constant frustration. Some of them even think Dad does it deliberately, even though everyone else has the same problem.

My sisters snorted rudely as Oz took a bow and returned to his seat. He flushed angrily, but he didn’t say anything. Strong as he was – he was the biggest boy in class – he was still helpless against magic. My sisters could have hexed him before he could even take a step towards them, if they wanted. There were some desultory claps from the front row – the sneaks and swots who were working desperately for a scholarship – but nothing else. Half the class was trying hard not to fall asleep.

“Caitlyn,” Madam Rosebud said. “If you will come to the front, please?”

I picked up my essay and headed to the front row, ignoring the quiet snickering from behind me. For once, I was actually looking forward to reading my work to the rest of the class. I’d been told to write about the history of the Thousand-Year Empire and the Sorcerous Wars, a subject I found fascinating. Hundreds of secrets were lost in the wars, including the technique used to make Objects of Power. My father had so many books on the period, including some that couldn’t be found anywhere else, that I’d been spoilt for choice. Boiling it down to a couple of pages had been a headache.

My sisters were smiling as I turned to face the class. In hindsight, that should have been a warning. My sisters spent as little time with me as they could. I rustled the paper for attention, then opened my mouth. Words came tumbling out …

They weren’t the right words. “Madam Rosebud is fat, fat, fat,” I said. My hands, moving against my will, started to clap. “Madam Rosebud is fat …”

The class stared at me in stark disbelief, their faces torn between an insane urge to giggle and an overpowering urge to flee. No one, absolutely no one, mocked Madam Rosebud. Fat she might be, ugly and smelly she might be, but no one dared mock her. I tried to clamp my lips shut as word after word spewed forth … the spell collapsed, far too late. Alana was covering her mouth to keep from laughing out loud, her eyes sparkling with malice. She must have hexed me on the way up, I realised …

A hand caught my arm and swung me around. “I have never experienced such disrespect,” Madam Rosebud thundered. Her face was so close to mine that I could smell the onions she’d had for lunch. I cowered back, despite myself. “You …”

She marched me into the naughty corner, muttered a cantrip and then left me there, staring at the wall. My feet were firmly fixed to the ground, held in place by magic. I struggled, but I couldn’t lift my shoe. Madam Rosebud’s voice boomed in my ear as she silenced the class, ordering my sisters to take a note to my father. I hated Alana in that moment, Alana and Bella too. Not content with going to Jude’s, not content with being able to escape their hated zero of a sister, they’d ruined my prospects of entering the upper school. Madam Rosebud wouldn’t let me stay in her class, not after everything I’d called her.

And dad wouldn’t let me tell her the truth, I thought, numbly.

I’d never been able to cast a single spell, not one. Even the basic cantrips are beyond me. It isn’t uncommon for children to be unable to cast spells until they reach a certain age, but most authorities agree that magical talent shows itself by eleven. If it doesn’t show itself by then, it isn’t there. And I was twelve … a zero. No magic, no sensitivity to magic …my father had forbidden me to tell anyone, but rumours were already getting out. Alana and Bella, showing off their spells whenever they wanted, didn’t help. People were asking why I wasn’t such a show-off.

I stood there, helplessly, as the class filed out for the day. Madam Rosebud was making me wait, then. I crossed my arms and waited, hoping that Dad would be in a good mood. But I knew he was probably going to be unhappy. Sir Griffons was visiting and that always annoyed my father. I don’t know why he didn’t simply tell the knight to go to another enchanter. It wasn’t as if Sir Griffons was more important than my father. Knight or not, he was no sorcerer.

It felt like hours before the door opened and I heard my father’s measure’s tread crossing the room. I could feel his gaze on my back as he spoke briefly to Madam Rosebud, cutting off a bleat from the harpy before she could work herself into a frenzy. I tensed, despite myself. I was going to pay for that, next term. Very few people would pick a fight with my father – and no one would do it twice – but Madam Rosebud could mark me down for anything …

“Caitlyn,” Dad said. He heard him walking up behind me. “Free yourself. We have to go.”

I twisted my head to scowl at him. The cantrip was simple. My sisters wouldn’t have had any trouble escaping when Madam Rosebud’s back was turned. But for me … it was utterly unbreakable. My feet were firmly fixed to the ground.

My father scowled back at me. “Now.”

He was a tall dark man, dressed in black and gold robes that denoted his status as the High Magus of Magus Court. His dark eyes normally sparkled with light, particularly when his daughters were around, but now they were grim. I knew I was in trouble, even though it was Alana’s fault. Dad … had told her off, more than once, for casting spells on me, but he also expected me to learn to counter the spells. And yet, without magic, it was pointless. I could say the words and make the gestures, yet I always ended up looking stupid. Sure, I know the words to turn you into a frog, but without magic the spell is useless.

I knelt down and undid my shoes, then stepped out of them. The shoes themselves remained firmly stuck to the floor. Dad eyed me for a long moment before sighing and cancelling the cantrip. I picked up my shoes, pulled them back on and followed him towards the door, not daring to look at Madam Rosebud. My sisters wouldn’t be back, next term, but they’d ruined my life anyway. Any hopes I might have had of a life without them were gone.

“You have to work harder,” Dad said, as soon as we were outside. The summer air was warm, but I felt cold. “Your magic needs to be developed.”

I didn’t look at him. “Dad … I don’t have magic,” I said. “I’m a zero.”

“No daughter of mine is a zero,” Dad said, sternly. “You have magic. You just have to learn how to access it.”

I felt a wave of despair, mingled with bitter guilt. My father had expended more money than I cared to think about, just trying to undo the lock on my magic. I’d used tools designed to bring out even a tiny spark of magic, brewed endless potions in the hopes of instinctively using magic to trigger them, undergone rituals designed to put me in touch with my magic … the only thing we hadn’t tried was left-hand magic. Dad had been so furious, the moment it had been suggested, that no one had dared mention it again. And nothing had worked. I was as powerless now as I’d been on the day I first picked up a focusing tool and tried to use it.

“I can’t,” I moaned. If I hadn’t found magic by now, I didn’t have it. “I don’t have any power.”

Dad gave me a sardonic look. “And what about Great Aunt Stregheria? You broke her spell.”

I shuddered. Great Aunt Stregheria was a witch with a capital B, a ugly old crone somehow related to my mother. She dressed like an evil witch from a fairy tale and talked like everyone else, including my parents existed to do her bidding. And she hated kids. My sisters and I had done something to offend her – I forget what, now – and she turned all three of us into frogs. We’d been ten at the time. It was the first time any of us had been transfigured against our wills.

Dad was utterly furious. He literally picked Great Aunt Stregheria up and threw her out of the grounds, then reset the wards to deny her admittance ever again. But, for all of his power, he couldn’t unravel the spell she’d placed on us. Neither he nor mum could undo it. We’d feared – even Alana, who’d got on best with the witch – that we would be stuck as frogs until the end of time, or at least until my father swallowed his pride and asked her to remove the spell.

But the spell on me had worn off in an hour, leaving me human again. My sisters had been stuck that way for a week when they returned to normal.

My father said, afterwards, that I must have used magic instinctively. He insisted that I had somehow broken her spell and freed myself. He even cast spells on me himself to encourage me to develop my talent. None of his spells lasted as long as he had intended either. But it was never something I could do consciously. If I had a talent – and he seemed to think I had something – it wasn’t one I could develop. My sisters sneered that magic was allergic to me.

“Dad, I don’t have magic,” I said, finally. It had taken me long enough to come to terms with it. “I’m just a zero.”

Dad sighed as he walked on. I trotted beside him, looking around. Normally, I would have enjoyed the chance to spend some time alone with him, but now … now I just felt tired and bitter. I’d never backed down in front of my sisters, I’d worked hard to find ways to extract revenge for their humiliations, yet there were limits. They would get better and better at magic, while I … the best I could hope for, I suspected, was theoretical magician. And even they tended to have magic. They needed it to prove their theories.

There were other options. I wasn’t a bad forger, even though I lacked magic; I was smart, capable … I could have found work easily, if I hadn’t been born to House Aguirre. The family name is a blessing, but it is also a curse. I was expected to be a powerful magician and I couldn’t even light a spark! There was no way I could work for anyone without magic, even the king. They’d all expect great things from me.

I sighed as we walked down the street, other pedestrians giving us plenty of room. It was just growing busy as more and more people finished their work and came out onto the streets to shop or merely to chat with their friends. A shopgirl was using magic to sweep dust out onto the streets, a blacksmith was chanting spells as he hammered metal into its shape … a street magician was showing off, but hardly anyone was paying attention. Shallot has a larger population of magicians than anywhere else in Tintagel, as well as Jude’s and a couple of magical universities. You had to do more than swallow fire and breathe water to impress this city.

But that clown has more magic than I do, I thought, feeling another flicker of bitter resentment. Illusionist or not, he was still a magician. And he can do something else with his life.

We crossed the bridge from Water Shallot to North Shallot, the guards on the gates saluting my father as we walked past. North Shallot is the richest part of the city, home to merchants and traders as well as sorcerers, alchemists and enchanters. I’d often wondered why Madam Rosebud and her superiors hadn’t opened their school in North Shallot, although the costs of buying land in the north are much higher. No doubt someone in Magus Court had objected, loudly. Magicians rule North Shallot. Everyone else lives on their sufferance.

“Things are changing, Cat,” my father said. I shivered. He only called me Cat when he was worried. “House Rubén has been making advances in Magus Court. My position may be under threat.”

I looked up at his dark face. He was worried. House Rubén was our family’s great rival, our only real equal in Shallot. I’d grown up listening to horror stories about how they treated their friends and so-called allies. It would be hard for them to unseat my father, I thought, but they could undermine him. Stepping down from his post was one thing; being unseated was quite another. The other Houses would back away from us.

“He can’t do that,” I said. “Surely …”

“He’s trying,” Dad told me. “House Rubén has wanted to win power for generations. Now … they might have a chance.”

“Because of me,” I said. “Because I don’t have any powers.”

Magic is stronger, I have been told time and time again, if children are twins or triplets … there’s even a legend of a witch who gave birth to five magical children. My parents, with three daughters, should have been powerful indeed, their bloodline secure for generations to come. But I had no powers …

… And the trinity my sisters and I should have formed had never come into existence.

House Rubén had only two children, as far as I knew. Twins rather than triplets. But both of them were powerful. There was no weak link.

“You have power,” my father said, sharply. He sounded as though he was trying to convince himself. “The spells I have cast on you … they should have stayed in place until I took them off. But you broke them.”

I looked down at the pavestones. “But I don’t know how!

“Figure it out,” my father said, sternly. He squeezed my shoulder, gently. “Time is not on our side.”

I shook my head, helplessly. Maybe I did have a gift. But it was more likely that I was just a freak, a child born without any magic at all.

A zero.