Archive | February, 2017

The Zero Blessing DVD Commentary – CH2

27 Feb

I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing this – probably up to CH10, if anyone is interested in me continuing … <grin>.

Chapter Two

Aguirre Hall is more than just my family’s residence. It’s the centre of our power.

One of the fundamental points that I’ve noticed a lot of light fantasy works miss is just how the nobility – however defined – wields power. Lord Whatever isn’t just powerful because he’s rich, he’s powerful because he has a small army of retainers at his disposal. The old families of England – the Percy Family, for example – were never just a small extended family. They had loyal servants and clients, soldiers and suchlike under their command. The monarch might be the titular ruler of the country, but overmighty noblemen could often threaten the monarch’s position.

As military tech advanced, it became harder and harder for the great noblemen to match the central government. During the English Civil War, King Charles had problems recruiting soldiers, as the old nobility had been weakened during Queen Elizabeth and King James’s reign. They never truly recovered, even after the Restoration, which is partly why Bonnie Prince Charlie was never successful in raising the English Jacobites. Post-1745, private military forces in the UK largely faded completely.

(I think Rowling nodded to this when she gave Draco two cronies – Crabbe and Goyle.)

In this case, Cat’s father is the ruler of a large household of magicians and forgers, with clients all over the city. He’s a very powerful man.

I followed my father through the gates – warded extensively to keep out hawkers, traders and pedestrians, even though I couldn’t sense the spells – and up towards the hall. It is an immense building, a mansion composed of stone and practically coated in protective enchantments and spells. The magical community is fond of testing our protections from time to time, sending probes over the walls and into our wards. So far, none of them have actually managed to break through the defences.

Travis, the butler, opened the door as we approached. He’s lesser family – he has a blood tie to us – and it gives him an ability to sense the more senior members as they walk into the mansion. I rather liked him, despite a snooty attitude that grated on my nerves from time to time. My sisters joked he had his nose so high in the air that he kept walking into walls, but I didn’t think so. Besides, he had always been kind to me.

Lesser family, in this case, refers to people who are related to the mainline family, but not that closely. Travis is effectively a client of his Great Uncle.

“Sir,” he said, addressing my father. “Your family is gathered in the lower dining room.”

“Very good,” Dad said. “We shall attend on them at once.”

I sighed – I’d hoped for a chance to sit down and plot revenge – but Dad clearly had other ideas. It was too much to hope that he would punish Alana, of course. He wanted me to develop my powers … and if that meant allowing my sister to jinx and hex me whenever my back was turned, he’d allow it as long as she didn’t do anything life-threatening. Social death, of course, didn’t register. It never seemed to occur to my father that while he had the power to be rude to all and sundry, I didn’t have the same luxury. No one made allowances for zeroes.

Like too many parents, Cat’s father believes that children can be pushed into progressing further if life becomes uncomfortable for them. He therefore turns a blind eye to Alana bullying Cat, telling himself that it’s actually good for her. Obviously, he’s wrong. Cat has all the incentive she needs to learn magic, but not the ability.

The hallway opened up in front of us as my father headed for the stairs, his calm measured tread echoing in the air. I followed him, pausing just long enough to glance at the Family Sword, buried in the Family Hearthstone. The sword is a genuine Object of Power, crafted over a thousand years ago and handed down from generation to generation. According to legend, only a true member of the family can draw the sword from the stone. I’ve seen a couple of apprentices, strong young men, try and fail to pull it free. The sword had been utterly unmovable.

I’ve tried to draw a distinction between Objects of Power and Devices of Power – the former actually hold a mythical status, like the One Ring or the Deathly Hallows, even when their use is seemingly mundane.

I’d tried to pull it out myself, one day when Alana’s taunts had become unbearable. The sword had come out easily, even though I’d only been nine years old. It was proof, I suppose, that my parents didn’t take in a foundling they’d found on the steps … but I still couldn’t do magic. Half the sword’s true powers seemed beyond my reach. My father, wielding the sword, could work wonders. But then, he could work wonders without the sword too.

Yep, Cat is definitely her father’s daughter. He checked.

“Come on,” Dad said, crossly. “Don’t dawdle.”

I gave the sword one last look, then hurried up the stairs after him. The lower two floors of the mansion are devoted to my family’s work, ranging from living rooms for the apprentices and servants to forges, spell-crafting chambers and the lower library, one of the finest libraries in the world. The really interesting – and unique – texts are kept in the upper library, but most magicians would be pleased merely to have a look at the lower library. It’s the greatest store of magical knowledge in the kingdom, outside Jude’s, and it’s all ours.

Another source of power within this world is having sole possession of magical textbooks handed down from the Thousand Year Empire.

The upper two levels, protected by a set of inner wards, are reserved for the family. No one, not even Dad’s most trusted apprentices, can pass through the doors without permission, unless they’re recognised as being of family blood. The doors open easily at my touch, but won’t move an inch for someone who isn’t keyed into the wards. And there are more powerful defences lurking in reserve, just waiting for someone foolish enough to break through the outer layer. A magician who tries to break into our private quarters will spend the rest of his life wishing he hadn’t.

The downside of living in such a household is that your house isn’t just a house, but an administrative centre. Like the White House, only a relatively small collection of rooms are put aside for the family itself.

I wanted to go to my bedroom, if only long enough to splash water on my face, but Dad led me down the corridor and into the dining room before I could say a word. The smaller dining room is still larger than the classroom, easily big enough to sit thirty or forty guests … I’ve often wondered why Dad insists on having family dinners, when we could easily eat in our rooms. There are only five of us, after all. My parents, my sisters and myself.

Alana shot me a smug look as I entered the room. She looked … regal. My mother had been teaching Bella and her all the tricks she needed to get herself crowned queen bee, once she entered Jude’s. I’d sat in on a couple of lessons, when Bella had insisted on not suffering alone, but I’d found them immensely boring. Popularity was meaningless compared to power and I had none. As long as my sisters were around, I’d always be an outcast. Who would be my friend when it would expose them to my sister’s malice?

This is, of course, one of the many reasons why school bullying is so destructive.

Kids – and many adults, when the internet lynch mob is on the prowl – have a habit of shying away from someone who is being bullied, fearful of attracting the attention of the bully to themselves. This actually makes life worse for the victim, as he/she comes to see the entire population of the school as the bully, even when most of the students haven’t actually done anything.

Like I said, I hated school.

I rolled my eyes at Alana, trying not to show how much it hurt to see her. Alana held herself like an adult, her long dark hair hanging down to brush against her shoulders. The dark blue dress she wore drew attention to her face, which was carefully made up to hide all traces of imperfections. Even at twelve, Alana was tall. She’d be taller than my mother by the time she graduated and went on to run the family. And the simple necklace she wore, glittering with eldritch light, was a sign of power.

“Dad,” Bella said. “You’re back!”

Dad smiled at her. I tried to keep my expression under control as I sat down. Bella had always been Dad’s favourite, although I’d never understood why. She was short and pudgy, barely putting in the minimum effort to succeed at anything. I could imagine her graduating from school and then coming home to spend the rest of her life vegetating, despite having more magic in her fingertips than most people have in their entire bodies. She was clever enough, when she could be bothered to be clever, but she rarely cared enough to put in the effort. I would have done far more if I’d had her powers.

Both Alana and Bella went off the rails, but they went off in different directions. Alana thinks she’s entitled to power and is willing to work to get it, while Bella is content to sup from the silver spoon for the rest of her life. Indeed, both of them suffered because their parents were more focused on trying to help Cat than them.

But then, she didn’t need to work, not if she didn’t want to. The family would take care of her for the rest of her life.

Dad clapped his hands, the sound echoing outside the room. I groaned inwardly – even that simple spell was denied me – and watched as Lucy wheeled the food into the room. The last day of schooling, it seemed, was special. Cook had produced his finest roast beef, then used magic to keep it hot until we were ready to eat. Lucy might be a maid, but even she could cast the spells to release the food. She’d always been nice to me, at least when she knew I was listening, yet I’d seen her cast a few disdainful glances at me when she’d thought I wasn’t looking. I don’t know why. Alana had targeted Lucy with a few nasty spells before Mum had put a stop to it. Whatever Mum had said to my sister had clearly been effective.

Lucy, like Travis, is lesser family. She resents Cat because Cat has a high position, despite a complete lack of magic. This wasn’t too uncommon amongst bastard children of the nobility from 1100 onwards, where they would often be raised at Court (like Henry Fitzroy) but never have a chance at real power. I don’t know how many of them turned traitor, but I’d bet good money that quite a few of them did.

“Let us eat,” Dad said, after casting a spell to make sure the food was safe to eat. I don’t know why he bothered – the cook had been with the family longer than I had been alive – but he insisted on checking, every time. He’d taught us all the spells too, although I couldn’t make them work. Someone who wanted to poison me would have an easy time of it. “Lucy, carve the meat.”

Henry, the cook, had excelled himself – as usual. I would have enjoyed the meal, I thought, if I hadn’t been brooding. Alana had probably ensured I wouldn’t get to enter upper school, even if my father shovelled money in their direction. Madam Rosebud was probably already complaining to the headmaster about my cheeky attitude. And if I didn’t get to go on, what then? There were no apprenticeships for students without powers, at least in Shallot. I couldn’t even get hired as a sailor until I was older!

And I’d still need some spells if I wanted to sail, I thought, numbly. What can I do with no magic at all?

This is, again, the crux of the problem.

“I worked out the last stages of the potion,” Mum said. “The idiot who wrote the book left out two steps and altered five of the quantities.”

One of the points that will become important later is that this society suffered a major disaster – the fall of the Thousand Year Empire – several hundred years ago and a great deal of knowledge was lost. The books that remain often leave details out – including one of great significance – because the writer couldn’t imagine anyone not knowing it. Kat’s mother, among others, tries to work out what’s missing.

“Well done, Mum,” Bella said. “Can anyone brew it now?”

“Caitlyn can’t,” Alana said. She snickered. “Zeros can’t brew potions.”

I felt my cheeks heat with helpless rage. Mum had taught me how to brew, but – of course – I lacked the magic to trigger the cascade that turned the potion from a mixture of odd ingredients to something useful. It didn’t matter how carefully I followed the instructions, or what changes I made if I felt like experimenting … nothing worked. Alana or Bella could take a potion I’d brewed and trigger it, but I couldn’t trigger theirs. Maybe I was doomed to work in an apothecary. Someone who had enough magic to start the cascade, but lacked the patience to brew the mixture properly …

“That’s very good, dear,” Dad said. “Are you going to write it up?”

“I think so,” Mum said. “It isn’t anything worth trying to reserve for the family.”

“Don’t let Stregheria hear you say that,” Alana said. She was trying to be grown-up, acting as though she was an adult already. “She’d expect you to reserve it.”

Alana admires her Great Aunt, but for the wrong reasons – Great Aunt Stregheria is a powerful and independent woman who can get away with slapping (in effect) one of the most powerful men in the world. Alana actually sees that sort of power as something to aspire to, but doesn’t see the downsides – no one likes Great Aunt Stregheria and no one will help her if she’s in trouble.

Mum looked annoyed, her lips thinning until they were almost invisible. Great Aunt Stregheria certainly would expect the recipe to be held in reserve. She was a selfish old biddy, one utterly devoted to herself. Mum had never liked her, even before she’d turned Mum’s children into frogs. I’d heard, afterwards, that Mum had been on the verge of calling Stregheria out for a duel. Stregheria was old and powerful, but I wouldn’t have bet against my mother. She was powerful too.

“There is little to be gained by keeping it back,” Mum said, stiffly. “It’s a basic healing potion, not something radical.”

I don’t know if it comes across here, but Cat’s mother is a researcher at heart – she loves unlocking secrets and proving her skills. It sometimes leads to … interesting … discussions with her husband.

I listened, absently, as we finished our dinner. I’d hoped, as soon as Lucy had removed the plates, to be allowed to leave, but no such luck. Dad told all three of us to follow him to his study. I sighed, even as Alana exchanged excited looks with Bella. Dad’s study, to them, was a hall of wonders. To me it was just another dangerous room in a dangerous house.

It was, in many ways, the sort of study I’d like to have. The walls were lined with bookshelves, including many volumes I knew were unique or forbidden; the chairs were charmed to be comfortable, all the better to allow my father to work. But I also knew the room was strongly warded, so strongly warded that even Mum couldn’t enter without permission. Alana had tried to sneak in a few times, but she’d always been caught. Dad had not been amused.

“Your mother and I have made some decisions about your futures,” Dad said, once we were sitting on comfortable armchairs. They were so large that I half-wondered if someone had cast a shrinking spell on me when I wasn’t looking. Even Dad looked small, sitting on his chair. “The three of you will be going to Jude’s.”

This is not, of course, what Cat expected.

It was so unexpected that I didn’t quite grasp what he’d said, not for a long chilling moment. It had to be a joke, a cruel joke. Even my sisters looked shocked. Alana actually paled. And why not? I’d long since given up hope of going to Jude’s. Entering a school for magicians without magic … it would have been safer to cover myself in fish sauce, then go for a swim in the shark tank.

Originally, this was a concept that was meant for Schooled In Magic. But I’d set that universe up in a manner that made it impossible – or, at least, impossible for anyone to actually succeed. Like I believe I mentioned, I wish I’d had this core idea before I started work on SIM.

“Dad,” Alana managed, finally. “Caitlyn can’t go to Jude’s!”

Dad fixed her with his stern look. “And why not?”

Bella spluttered. “Because she’s a zero!”

Alana and Bella are being brats here, but they do have a point.

I’m actually quite fond of situations where the jerkass has a point. Normally, the point is ignored because the jerk isn’t popular. Really, that happened to me a lot during my schooldays. I’d say something and be ignored because one of the more popular students had a better idea.

“Caitlyn defeated a spell that bested me,” Dad pointed out, icily. “Can either of you say the same?”

“… I,” Bella said. “Dad …”

Alana took over. “Dad, she hasn’t been able to cast a single spell,” she said, talking about me as if I wasn’t there. “She can’t even do this!”

She waved a hand in the air. Sparkling light appeared out of nowhere, surrounding her like a halo. It was a very basic spell, perhaps one of the most basic. Light could be bright, perhaps even blinding, but it couldn’t cause any real harm. Most parents preferred to use light spells to teach their kids because the risk of accidentally starting a fire or injuring themselves was minimal.

And she was right. I couldn’t even do that.

“Your sister has magic,” Dad said, firmly. It was a tone that promised punishment to anyone who dared to disagree with him. “She just cannot access it. Being at Jude’s will help her to develop her magic.”

I swallowed, hard. “Dad … I can’t go.”

“You will,” Dad said. “The family needs the trinity.”

“We have a weak link,” Alana muttered.

This world believes that twins – and triplets and so on – actually reinforce the magic, if they learn to work as a team. This is true, sort of. It isn’t true here because Cat can’t work magic with her siblings, hence the weak link remark, and the other two have very different personalities.

Dad gave her a long considering look. “Do you still want to go to the party tomorrow evening?”

Alana winced. “Yes, Dad.”

“Then be quiet,” Dad ordered.

He looked back at me. “Caitlyn, I understand your concerns,” he said. “Be that as it may, you do have magic. You have to be trained to use it.”

“I don’t,” I said, miserably.

Alana had told me that I’d be disowned when I turned twelve, if I didn’t show any signs of magic. I didn’t want to believe her, but I’d always worried. She’d certainly made it clear that she would disown me, when she became head of the family. Her great and terrible future would be blighted by a powerless sister …

Alana is probably right here, even though – again – she’s being a jerk. Having a complete zero in the family raises interesting and quite worrying questions about what might be running through the bloodstream. It will not only undermine Alana by calling her magic into question, it will weaken her hand when it comes to discussing potential marriage arrangements after she graduates. Suitors will wonder if Alana’s kids will be born without magic too.

“You can and you will,” Dad said. “Your mother and I are in agreement. You and your sisters will enter Jude’s after the summer holidays.”

Bella looked … nervous. “We could learn from you instead …”

“You’re growing older,” Dad said. “And there are limits to what we can teach you.”

This is true. Their parents are knowledgably people, but they’re not tutors.

“And we have to make friends and contacts,” Alana added.

“Quite right,” Dad agreed.

The British Boarding Schools and Universities – particularly Oxford and Cambridge – were (and indeed still are) more than just educational establishments. Students, mostly from wealthy or well-established families, would go to school in hopes of making friends and contacts among others – rather like Yale in the US, which taught five presidents and plenty of other movers and shakers.

This, as I noted in another essay, is true of Hogwarts too. The school actually gives the Wizarding World its core monoculture. Jude’s has the same advantages and disadvantages, although it’s hardly the only school in the world.

He launched into an explanation of the problems facing our house, the same explanation he’d given me earlier. I barely heard a word. My sisters had spent the last four years tormenting me with magic, but now … now I was going to school. Jude was a good school, according to my parents, yet I’d heard horror stories from some of the apprentices. If you had strong magic, the school was great; if you were weak, you were picked on by everyone else. And the teachers did nothing to stop it. Alana and Bella wouldn’t have any trouble – the family name would make up for any problems – but me …? I’d be lucky if I wasn’t permanently trapped as a frog by the end of the first week.

Cat is panicking here. Trapping someone as a frog permanently is beyond most first year students.

Alana poked my arm. “Pay attention.”

I looked up. Dad was looking back at me, annoyed.

“Now, there will be some specific accommodations made,” he said. “Alana, Bella … you will not discuss your sister’s problems with anyone. You will both be under a binding spell to make sure of it.”

“But Dad,” Alana protested. “I …”

“The matter is settled,” Dad said, firmly.

Alana shot me a nasty look that promised trouble. A binding spell wasn’t particularly dangerous, not if cast by a skilled mage, but it was a very blunt way of saying that my father didn’t trust her to keep her mouth shut. It was an insult, in many ways. And I wouldn’t put it past my sister to figure out a way around the binding. Dad wouldn’t risk putting a strong spell on his daughter. If nothing else, Mum wouldn’t let him.

Cat’s father isn’t entirely blind to just how badly Cat is treated, even though he thinks it’s for her own good. Now, with all three of them going to school, he’s prepared to make life harder for Alana and Bella.

On the other hand, like Cat says, putting a binding on someone is offensive. And he can’t use one strong enough to really make sure they don’t cause trouble.

I tried, anyway. “Dad, I can’t work magic,” I said.

Dad cocked his head. “Do you want to work magic?”

I nodded. I’d wanted it ever since I’d understood that my parents were magicians. And I still wanted it. The power Bella wasted so casually … what could I do, if that were mine instead of hers?

“Then this is your best chance,” Dad said, seriously. He clapped his hand on my shoulder, reassuringly. I knew he meant well, but … “The tutors are the best in the world. They can teach you.”

“Your last chance,” Alana said.

I shook my head. I’d never been able to get a spell to work, not one. There were people with no talent who could do better than that. But me? I couldn’t cast a single spell.

Perhaps I should run away, I thought. It was a tempting thought. But where would I go?

Cat does not know anything about the world outside Shallot, beyond crude stereotypes. This obviously becomes important later.

Dad clapped his hands together. “Caitlyn, you can go,” he said. “Alana, Bella; I have some other matters to discuss with you.”

I nodded, then turned and left the study. My sisters were going to hate me after today. The binding wouldn’t hurt them – Dad would see to that – but it would be humiliating. I’d find it humiliating too, if someone had cast such a spell on me. And they had …

Revenge, I promised myself. Alana might have magic, but I wasn’t going to bow the knee to her. I wasn’t doing anything else until bedtime, so I might as well plan revenge. And then see if I can give her a fright.

Smiling, I hurried back to my room. I had some thinking to do.

One of the points I tried to work on here is that Cat isn’t a passive victim, unlike Johan of The Very Ugly Duckling. She’s smart, she’s knowledgeable and she’s flatly reluctant to give in. She may not have any magic of her own, but she does try to find ways to get back at her sisters for their bullying. The jury is out, of course, on if this makes her a good person or not.

The Importance of Having an Editor – And How to Work with One

24 Feb

A change from politics here …

A few months ago, I was having a chat with another author at a convention (a few details have been changed to protect the guilty.) We were comparing notes on editors and she told me that her editor was an absolute pain in the posterior. She talked about the editor as one might talk about an abusive partner, a nagging gas-lighting manipulator who enjoys making you second-guess yourself and (eventually) give up completely. This was clearly a relationship that had gone deeply sour and I advised her to contact the publisher, explain that the editor wasn’t working out and request a new one.

(Most publishers, like most managers, tend to assume there isn’t a problem if they don’t hear anyone squawking.)

But what struck me was her insistence that she didn’t need an editor. Her experience with her editor – and a string of bad editing suggestions – had convinced her that editors were worthless. And while I tended to agree that this editor was clearly a poor choice, I had to disagree that all editors are worthless. Writers need editors.

No writer ever born can avoid making mistakes. The human eye is lazy and tends to skip over mistakes because it knows what it should say. Each page of the manuscript is the result of considerable effort, even for the best writers. They need someone to take a look at the manuscript with a fresh eye and point out the mistakes.

This is not a pleasant process. I have often reminded myself, after receiving a manuscript covered in MS Word edits, to love the editor even when I hate the editing. No writer enjoys even the simple copy-editing process, let alone the more substantive rewrites that are sometimes suggested. But it has to be done. The editor may see your mistakes, but if you remove them before the book is published no one else will see them. (And you don’t get reviews that say “this idiot made hundreds of mistakes.”)

Why is this important? There are authors, some of whom you can probably name, who are such big names that they are effectively ‘editor-proof.’ These are the authors who can force a publisher to accept a manuscript without major edits, even when the manuscript requires major edits. The publisher may not realise that there is a substantial problem until the sales start to drop, by which time it is too late to fix the problem. An editor might well have been able to keep the problem from turning into a nightmare.

The thing authors have to bear in mind is that they, not the editor, are the one who will have their name on the cover. They are the ones who are credited with writing the book. And they have the final say, in a well-run publishing house, on which changes actually make it into the final manuscript. The editor is meant to point out potential problems. You – the author – are the one who has to decide if the author has a point.

(Have a look at the above line. See the mistake? I nearly missed it …)

So … how to deal with editors?

If your book is picked up by a publishing company – small or large – the company will probably have a stable of editors they’ve worked with before. These editors will be familiar with the type of books the company publishers – they’ll be familiar with the conventions of the genre and suchlike. In this case, all you have to do is establish the ground rules (see below.)

If you’re self-publishing and you don’t have anyone to refer you to an editor (there’s a list of people I’ve worked with here), you need to be a little more careful. Word of mouth will probably lead you to a few possibilities. Otherwise … if you find an editor’s website, ask them directly what sort of books they edit. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or for references, or even for them to do a free sample. Most editors I’ve met are happy to prove they can actually do the work. If they refuse … danger, danger, indie author.

(If you’re written a series, you want the editor to be familiar with the series too.)

Sort out payment first, including details like how the payment is to be transferred and what sort of timetable you want. (Most editors will skim the manuscript, then give you an estimate.) Be careful of non-standard requests – money is quite understandable, but co-author credit or future favours is not. Do not make any profit-sharing agreements. They tend to end very badly.

(Regarding co-author credit, that’s a very unusual request unless they’re literally rewriting the entire book. In that case, you might consider it worthwhile.)

Once you have an editor, sort out the ground rules. Most people have a preferred way of doing things. (I prefer to get a manuscript with all changes clearly marked so I can check them, one by one.) Make sure you get this done before any work is actually done because editors tend to get annoyed if you ask them to do something again. You may have to argue with the publisher, if they have a different way of doing things. It has to be done.

(Tip – get them to do a little editing, then sent you the edited manuscript. It’s useful to make sure you can actually see the changes before they start work on the whole thing.)

I generally divide editing into two subsets – conceptual editing and line editing. The former is correcting mistakes in the storyline itself or suggesting improvements. The latter is spelling and grammar mistakes (etc). Most editors will prefer to do them together unless they have some pretty serious conceptual edits to suggest. If you want to take them separately, however, make sure they do it. This might, of course, cost more.

Once you get the edited manuscript, read through it from start to finish, then go for a long walk. You’ll need to calm down. Some of the changes will seem like pointless nitpicking, others will seem unbearably stupid. Do not send back outraged justifications, insults or anything else. Think about the suggestions first. Generally, I find that:

-I’ve written something that doesn’t make sense.

-I’ve left out a piece of information that readers need to understand what’s going on.

-The editor is wrong because [whatever].

With the first two, fix the problem. With the latter, write back and explain – calmly and reasonably – why the editor is wrong. Bear in mind that even if the editor is wrong, you may have a problem because someone read something you wrote and got it wrong.

Remember, the editor is on your side! No matter how mind-numbingly stupid his remarks may sound, they have to be taken seriously. Don’t dismiss his remarks without a solid reason why you’re disagreeing with him.

But at the same time, remember … the editor is not your boss.

Go through the manuscript, make the changes, then send it back for another look. It may pass muster or there may be other issues. Deal with them. Hopefully, by that point, you’ll have a far better manuscript.

We all talk about wanting people to tell us the truth, the unvarnished truth. And let’s face it – most of us are liars. We want people to sing our praises. That’s why most authors run into trouble when they show their work to someone who doesn’t feel obliged to be nice (i.e. a reader who thinks he just blew thirty minutes on a useless book) and tells them precisely what they think of it.

Think of the editor as the guy who always tells you the truth, the guy whose job it is to point out the problems in your work. He is the epitome of ‘good is not nice.’ He isn’t there to flatter you. His job is to make your work better by making you aware of potential problems …

… And learning to work with editors is one of the keys to a writing career.

Opinions, Opinions … And Politics

23 Feb

As I keep telling my brother … if you shoot the messenger, all you get is less mail.

-Death of the Endless, Lucifer.

One of the few teachers I actually liked at school was fond of debate. He thought, in all honesty, that debate was key to truly understanding something. His idea of a mental exercise for our young minds was to put us in a position where we had to argue for or against something, regardless of our feelings on the matter. He was very good at guessing where we would stand and forcing us to argue the other side.

He taught empathy in a manner that actually stuck (unlike pointless appeals to better nature or idealism). He expected us to actually uphold ‘our’ side of the debate and marked us down when we tried to lose (because we didn’t want to ‘win.’) We came to understand that a person and their arguments were not always the same thing. Someone could and did argue for (or against) something that they found horrific, without actually compromising themselves. It was, in many ways, a useful education – a person who disagrees with you, or appears to disagree with you, isn’t always a villain.

It was, in some ways, excellent training for writing. I try to understand how the other side thinks – I try to explain their reasoning – without actually condemning them as either Ron the Death Eaters or Draco in Leather Pants. I try to understand where they are coming from without actually making excuses for them. A man like Karl Holliston of Storm Front, a committed Nazi in the truest possible sense, didn’t decide to be evil one day. He’s the product of a chain of events that, in no way, excuses the crimes he committed in the hopes of preserving the Reich.

In hindsight, the thing that struck me as genuinely brilliant was how skilfully he moderated the debates. We were not allowed to insult the other side; we were not allowed to shout and rage and generally act like assholes. We each had a set period of time in which to speak, then a chance to ask questions. We were expected to put arguments together, which would then be deconstructed and either destroyed or made stronger. I’m sure he had opinions of his own – I’m sure he did – but he never showed favouritism. We were graded on how well we argued our case.

This did not, of course, provide good training for debates on the internet.


I had the impression, as I moved onto the internet, that debates online were very similar to the ones I’d had at school. Yes, I was naive. I came to respect a couple of internet moderators – one of whom was quite well accomplished in the field we shared – and it took me some time to realise that they not only weren’t on my side (which wasn’t something they had to be), but they weren’t interested in actually serving as neutral arbiters.

What I hadn’t realised, at first, was just how badly the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour frayed on the internet. Internet trolls struck from the shadows, with moderators turning a blind eye (as long as the trolls were on the same side.) The rules were only enforced against people the moderators didn’t like or didn’t agree with, seemingly devised to turn the internet forums into echo chambers.

I had thought in terms of point, counterpoint and counter-counterpoint. They thought in terms of crushing the enemy. I had thought that debate was to be focused on the issue at hand. They thought that personal attacks were perfectly acceptable ways of winning an argument. I thought that patiently dismantling arguments was enough to point out that the argument was wrong. They thought that screaming, shouting and wild accusations (including blatant lies, misrepresentations, etc) was key.

Like most sensible people, I do not consider my opinions to be unchangeable. If someone comes to me with a logical argument that disproves something I had believed, I change my opinions. And the reason I do this is simple – if I am wrong, then there is nothing to be gained from continuing to uphold a wrong opinion. But, by contrast, if someone comes to me and insists – without putting forward any evidence – that I believe something because I am a horrible person, I’m just going to ignore him.

If you can’t put forward a coherent argument that proves someone wrong … are they wrong?

If this had stayed on the internet, it might not be a problem. But this attitude – the cultish belief that anyone who disagrees has to be driven out – is spreading into the real world.

I’ve seen too much of this over the last few months. People are being given grief – online and offline – for daring to try to understand the other side, often without actually supporting the other side. People have been unfriended, frozen out, even fired … just for daring to express the wrong opinion. Maybe the stories are exaggerated … it doesn’t matter. People tend to remember bad experiences – and things that make them feel bad – more than they remember good things. People who feel they are under attack either knuckle under, which makes them hate themselves and their oppressors, or clench their fists and start fighting back.

Everyone has the right to express an opinion. That’s freedom of speech. But they don’t have the right to have that opinion treated as revealed truth. If you want someone to take your opinions seriously, you have to convince them that your opinions deserve to be taken seriously. Sometimes, that’s a matter of having both qualifications and experience. At other times, it’s just a case of putting together a coherent and convincing argument.

And if I write an Op-Ed, you have the right to tell me I’m wrong.

And if you put together a coherent argument, I may even agree with you.

I make a point, these days, of trying to read opinions from all over the political spectrum. I don’t agree with everything I read – I really spend too long writing rebuttals in my head that never get written down – but I find it helps me to understand what the other side(s) is thinking. Reading their writings does not mean that I am committing treason or betraying my roots. Nor, for that matter, does acknowledging that the other side might have a point also mean that I have to accept their actions.

Years ago, I noted that the Right seemed to believe that even considering the enemy’s arguments might hold some validity was treason, while the Left appeared to believe that the enemy’s arguments (and justifications) had to be accepted without question. I wish things were that simple now.

I’d like to finish this short essay with a couple of observations.

First, over the past few months, I’ve read (and written) a lot of articles trying to explain why Hillary Clinton lost the general election. One theory that popped up sounded oddly plausible – Hillary didn’t change course because she thought she was winning. Assuming this is true, why would it be the case? Did it, perhaps, have something to do with her supporters not knowing a single Trump supporter? That Trump supporters feared that they would be punished for daring to say so openly? That, in the end, her campaign staff and richest supporters chose to believe their own propaganda instead of constantly checking and rechecking their premises?

If I could predict Trump’s win, why couldn’t Hillary Clinton?

The second point is, I think, a little more important. Unless you’re fighting the War on Straw, it isn’t actually that easy to convince someone to change their minds overnight, particularly when it goes against everything they believe. You might be right – objectively or subjectively – but it takes time for them to change. Slapping them down for daring to disagree does not help. Silencing them only convinces them that you are trying to hide the truth. Finding out why someone believes something, even if you know it to be wrong, is often more productive than shouting at them.

But this does, of course, require the patience to engage.

Pretend you’re in Hogwarts, standing next to Harry, Ron and Hermione. Draco comes along and starts shooting his mouth off about muggleborns being inferior to purebloods. In one universe, the Golden Trio hex him savagely and stamp off … and Draco declares, even as he bleeds, that they couldn’t actually counter his arguments …

… And he’s actually right. They didn’t win the argument. They only silenced him.

But what if, instead …

DRACO <sneers>: “Muggleborns are useless at magic.”

HARRY <reasoned tone>: “How come Hermione gets higher marks than you, pureblood?

DRACO <sneers>: “The teachers all favour her, Potter.”

HARRY <dryly>: “Even Professor Snape?”

DRACO: “…”

This is not an instant conversion. Of course it isn’t. Draco was raised to believe that purebloods were superior, so he’s very tempted to think that Hermione is being favoured by the teachers. But Snape is the one teacher who wouldn’t be tempted to favour a show-off know-it-all …

… And that is the first flaw in Draco’s argument. Given time, who knows? It might even change his mind.

But if you treat everyone who disagrees with you as an irredeemable enemy, you’re only going to close more and more minds.


The Zero Blessing CH1–DVD Commentary

22 Feb

I was challenged to write a DVD Commentary – a set of notes expanding on what I’d written – for one of my works. After some thought, I decided to try The Zero Blessing (out soon!) and see how things went. Comments welcome, of course.

Chapter One

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

It probably won’t surprise most of my readers to know I hated school. ‘The schoolboy trudging unwillingly to school’ was me. Caitlyn/Cat’s sisters definitely agree.

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.

Of course she does. It’s the one place she can actually shine.

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.

Cat is actually the most studious of the three sisters – and, in many ways, she’s the smartest. She spent a lot of her life just soaking up information she might be able to use … or she would be able to use, if she had magic.

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 them, 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.

A point which I hope is clear – within the first chapters or so – is that Cat is effectively disabled, by the standards of her society. As far as they are concerned, she isn’t just blind, she’s deaf and dumb as well. Many people raised in high-magic environments actually think there’s something creepy about her, something wrong. Her peers are often repelled, often without realising why they are repelled.

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.

Madame Rosebud is pretty much the picture of a teacher I disliked at school. I still don’t recall her with any fondness.

“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 the class to yawning. “They simply do not fail.”

Having to listen – and pretend to pay attention – as my fellow pupils tried and failed to come up with new ways to say the same thing isn’t something I remember with much fondness either.

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.

Cat doesn’t say it, but Oz isn’t quite as helpless as her. He could sense a spell coming at him or lurking on his chair, waiting for him to sit down. For that matter, he could master a few protective charms if he worked at it. Yes, Alana and Bella have an advantage, but it’s not insurmountable.

It may not be clear here, but – in most places – this world is actually gender-neutral. A woman can be just as powerful, in magic, as a man.

“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.

Cat’s relationship with her sisters is best described as unpleasant. Alana, the ambitious one, sees Cat as both a target (and test subject) and a major embarrassment. Bella is less unpleasant, but willing to go along with Alana more than she should.

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 …”

This is, in many ways, the illustration of precisely why Cat is in such a dangerous situation. She’s vulnerable in ways few of her peers share. This may be a little joke, by Alana’s standards, but the implications are horrific.

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.

Someone who read the first draft commented that they didn’t find the above scene realistic, that Madam Rosebud should have known that Cat had been enspelled. To which I replied there were at least four explanations: she honestly didn’t know that Cat had been enspelled (particularly as she knows this is Cat’s last day at school even if Cat herself doesn’t know it); she knew that Alana cast the spell, but took the coward’s way out by blaming Cat (because Alana would be very important one day); she thought that Cat was to blame by not resisting the (very simple) spell; or, finally, Alana had made promises of future favours. Pick the one you like <grin>.

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.

Magic is pretty much the same as music in this universe. Anyone can learn to tap out notes on a piano or sing a song, but you need real talent to compose new tunes or sing for your supper. Alana and Bella have an advantage because they started very young (akin to children of musicians picking up music from a very early age.) Cat is odd because she literally cannot cast a single spell.

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.

Sir Griffons is someone who may be important later on, so I tossed in the mention here.

It felt like hours before the door opened and I heard my father’s measured 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.

When I was designing the characters, I rather pegged Samuel L. Jackson as Cat’s father.

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.

This is, of course, Cat’s attempt to overcome her disability. She’s cunning and uses a LOT of trickery to try to keep ahead of her siblings (and everyone else). Unfortunately, there are limits to what she can do.

“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.”

When I was designing the universe, I decided that ‘zero’ would be the common term for someone who couldn’t cast many (or any) spells. It isn’t exactly the same as ‘muggle’ or ‘squib’ because of the prevalence of magic, but it does have a certain sting. I was rather annoyed, afterwards, to be told about ‘The Familiar of Zero.’ Thankfully, save for the name, TZB has little in common with the manga.

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, an 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.

This is actually the first clue to Cat’s true nature. But her father and mother saw it as proof that she actually did have magic, even if she didn’t know how to access it.

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.”

Cat spends a lot of her time battling despair.

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.

This is, really, another illustration of Cat’s problem. Magic is as common in this society as technology is in ours. Cat cannot do anything with magic, which makes it hard for her to hold down a meaningful job.

Outside the city, as will be explored later, there are other options. But Cat doesn’t know about them.

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.”

Magus Court is responsible for ordering magic within the city limits. Holding a post on the council is not something to be surrendered lightly. Cat’s father may not be the mayor, but he’s definitely one of the powers behind the throne.

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 had some pretty conflicting responses to Cat’s father. Some people thought he was borderline abusive, others thought they understood his point. I prefer to see him as a grey figure – he loves all three of his daughters and wants them to be happy, but – because of his position – he has to use them to promote his family’s interests. He genuinely thinks Cat does have magic, because – at least in part – because that’s what he wants to believe.

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.

Updates …

16 Feb

It’s been a good week and a bad week.

The good news is that I have started work on The Long Road Home, Book IV of A Learning Experience. There’s a snippet posted on the blog <grin>. (I’ve also been finalising the cover design for The Fists of Justice, which means I probably need to write the book.)

The bad news is that I haven’t quite recovered from a burst of travel flu – or something. It’s starting to look as though this is going to be a regular event, as I got ill after returning from Malaysia the last time too. I feel thoroughly rotten today and haven’t been able to write the next set of chapters. Hopefully, normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

There’s no news on The Zero Blessing yet, but I live in hope.

Thanks for your patience!


Snippet-The Long Road Home (A Learning Experience IV)

13 Feb

The Long Road Home Large txt


In the end, the coup had been almost laughably easy.

The Elders had never considered, not really, that one of their younger subordinates would turn on them. They’d expected Neola to sit in her quarters and wait while they patiently gathered the evidence to convict her of everything from gross incompetence to dereliction of duty and whatever other charges they managed to make stick. They certainly hadn’t expected her to start plotting a coup. Neola had known she wasn’t the only youngster to resent the dominance of the Elders, but even she hadn’t realised just how much resentment and dislike there actually was. Organising a coup, once she’d accepted that a coup was actually possible, had been straightforward.

She allowed herself a tight smile as she sat in her office. The Elders had sputtered impotently when she’d marched in and taken over, but they hadn’t been able to resist. There had been no need to kill them, so she’d had them all transported to a reasonably comfortable resort on Tokomak itself, well away from any communications networks they could use to rally resistance. Not that she really expected them to try. Half of the Elders had been so shocked she was surprised they hadn’t expired on the spot, while the other half had been so unhinged they’d resorted to begging. Letting them live, she was sure, was more mercy than they’d had any right to anticipate.

And, she told herself, firmly, it was more than they deserved.

The Elders were old. Even the youngest was a good thousand years or so older than Neola herself. And they were ossified, utterly unable to conceive that anything might be able to threaten their control over the known universe. But a new threat had arisen, a threat that had started the slow collapse of the empire. No one, not even Neola herself, had been able to comprehend that a race that had barely been out in space for fifty years would be able to threaten the Tokomak. And yet, they had …

Neola looked down at the reports, barely seeing the words hovering in front of her. She’d been lucky – very lucky – to survive the Battle of Earth. Her fleet had been shattered, then abandoned by her allies … it was her fault. She’d underestimated the threat. She’d certainly underestimated humanity’s technological skill. But then, she’d been raised to believe that the Tokomak were the masters of the universe. If they couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done. And yet, the humans had proved them wrong. The vast fleets that had dominated the known galaxy for thousands of years were little more than scrap metal.

And because we have been humiliated in battle, she thought bitterly, our other allies are deserting us too.

It shouldn’t have surprised her, she told herself. The Tokomak Empire was bitterly resented by the other Galactics, despite the good it had done for the universe. The younger races wanted to strike out on their own, to build their own empires … even though they would plunge the galaxy into war. And the older races remembered the days before the stardrive, the days when they had competed with the Tokomak as equals. They wanted to be equal again, despite the cost. Slowly, piece by piece by piece, the empire was starting to disintegrate.

And we are not used to reacting quickly, she reminded herself. The humans can advance in leaps and bounds while we are still trying to decide what to do.

The latest set of intelligence reports terrified her. Humanity on its own wasn’t that great a threat. If worst came to worst, she could pour hundreds of thousands of starships into Sol until the human race ran out of weapons. She was sure they’d run out of missiles before they ran out of targets. But it looked as though the humans were expanding their alliance structure, inviting more and more races to join their Grand Alliance. They’d already convinced a number of middle-rank powers to consider joining, as well as fighting a successful war against a genocidal race. Given vast resources as well as their advanced technology, they might be able to put together a significant challenge in less time than she dared to think possible.

And if we expend millions of starships in crushing Sol, she mused, we will be significantly weakened elsewhere.

She cursed the Elders, savagely. The Tokomak had always assumed that they could deal with each individual threat at leisure, before it got out of hand. Their control over the gravity points allowed them to move vast fleets from place to place at will. But now … there were threats popping up everywhere, right across the galaxy. Coping with them all would take more time and resources than even she possessed. There was no way she could expend the resources necessary to crush Sol without crippling and ultimately destroying the empire itself.

We don’t have time to duplicate the human technology, she thought, sourly. The researchers are still in denial …

It was a bitter thought. The researchers had known they were at the panicle of technological achievement. Nothing significantly new had come out of the labs for over five thousand years. They hadn’t even made many improvements to old technologies! It would take decades – perhaps longer – for the researchers to comprehend that they didn’t know everything. And she didn’t think they had the time. They needed to gain access to human technology and they had to do it now.

She reached for her console and started issuing orders. The oldest patronage networks were still in place, at least. It would take time for them to start coming apart. And then …

… It was a gamble, she had to admit. It was a gamble she could easily lose. But the alternative was worse. She hadn’t launched her coup and made herself Supreme Ruler just to watch the empire collapse into chaos. The Tokomak had to ready themselves for action on an unprecedented scale, if they wanted to continue to dominate the universe. And they had no choice. They had so many enemies that defeat meant extermination. She didn’t dare lose.

And if a few pawns were lost along the way, she told herself, it was a small price to pay for ultimate victory.

Chapter One

You ask us why we need a galactic alliance? Do we need the galaxy? Say, rather, the galaxy needs us! As a haven, as a pole star, as an alternate – and better – way to live. Let us hold out a welcoming hand to aliens! Let us show them the promise of a better life. There is no need to fight. There is enough for everyone in the galaxy.

-Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

“Well,” Admiral Mongo Stuart said. He studied the holographic image with a sceptical eye. “I suppose that’s what you get if you allow a bunch of Star Trek fans to design a starship.”

Captain Elton Yasser smiled. “The Odyssey’s designers came from Roddenberry Canton,” he agreed, dryly. There was no point in trying to deny it. “But they didn’t quite copy one of the original designs.”

“Only because they couldn’t make the Enterprise-D with our current tech,” Admiral Stuart said. “I’m surprised they didn’t insist on naming the ship themselves.”

“There’s already an Enterprise in the fleet,” Elton said, seriously. “And a Defiant. And a Voyager.”

He shook his head. Odyssey was a flattened cylinder, eight hundred metres from bow to stern. Her prow was an arrowhead; her rear dominated by four massive drive nacelles that glowed against the inky darkness of space. The designers had wanted something that looked like an unconventional design – rather than the blunt cruisers that made up the mainstay of the Solar Navy – but technological reality had defeated their best efforts. Odyssey was cruder, perhaps, than her designers had wanted.

“She’s a good ship,” he said. “And she bears a honourable name.”

“I suppose she does,” Admiral Stuart said. “And yet, I cannot help recalling that the original starship was rammed and destroyed.”

He sat back in his chair and studied Elton for a long chilling moment. Elton knew what he saw. A brown-haired man, seemingly in his early forties; his face warm and friendly rather than blatantly attractive; someone secure enough in himself not to body-sculpt himself into an inhumanly handsome caricature of a man. The message would be clearly visible, to someone who’d been born in the Solar Union. He couldn’t help wondering what Admiral Stuart made of it. Physical imperfections had been far more common on pre-space Earth. Elton had had the standard bodymods, of course, but he’d long since grown out of simple vanity. There was no place for it in the Solar Navy.

Admiral Stuart himself looked little older than Elton. It would have been hard to believe that he was actually in his second century, if Elton hadn’t known quite a few others who were actually older. They had always struck him as being oddly disconnected from the world around them, either seeking sensual pleasure or separating themselves from it entirely, but Mongo Stuart didn’t look to have fallen prey to either. His eyes were calm, yet tightly focused. The man who had commanded the Solar Navy for the last sixty years – and had served in the wet-navy, before Contact – was still on top of his game.

The Admiral leaned forward, breaking the silence. “I trust there were no significant problems during the shakedown cruise?”

“No, sir,” Elton said. He ran a hand through his brown hair. “We spent the first two weeks flying around the Sol System, testing the drives and weapons. There weren’t any major problems. A handful of minor ones, all of which were fixed easily. The shipyard crews did a good job. I was expecting many more problems.”

“The AI simulations were very precise,” Admiral Stuart noted.

“I didn’t place much credence in them,” Elton admitted. “Reality always trumps theory.”

He shrugged. “We took her out to Varner, then headed downwards to Spiral and Cockatoo before returning to Sol. She handled like a dream. I think we impressed the locals, although there were some questions about our ability to fight. They didn’t seem too impressed with the design, at first. We couldn’t tell them about the interlocking shield generators or the self-regenerating systems.”

“No,” Admiral Stuart agreed. “She’s tough, but she’s still not a proper warship.”

“No, sir,” Elton agreed. Odyssey was armed, of course, but she wasn’t a battleship. Her weapons array was lighter than the average warship. “She’s designed for more than just military operations.”

“A jack-of-all-trades is almost always a master of none,” Admiral Stuart said. He tapped a switch. The holographic image vanished. “I cannot say that I approve of a starship that is designed for multiple roles.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Elton said, “we’re going to need more than warships as we expand further and further into the galaxy. We’re going to need everything from diplomatic envoys to colony and medical support ships … hell, sir, Odyssey does have enough firepower to hold the line against anything smaller than a battlecruiser. She could certainly hold out long enough for help to arrive.”

“Assuming anyone knew you were in trouble,” Admiral Stuart said. “The concept was hotly debated, as you know. There was a strong feeling that we should concentrate on building warships now, while we have the chance. The Tokomak are still out there.”

“Yes, sir,” Elton said. He’d fought in the Battle of Earth. “Which makes it all the more important that we build up relationships with the other galactic powers. Our technological advantage only goes so far.”

Admiral Stuart smiled, coldly. “It has been hotly debated,” he agreed. “And, as it happens, it has some bearing on your mission.”

Elton straightened as a holographic starchart appeared in front of them. “There is a great deal of debate over precisely what will happen, regarding the Grand Alliance,” Admiral Stuart told him. “We don’t know if we’ll end up starting … starting a United Federation of Planets or an alliance structure more comparable with old NATO than anything more integrated. It may be years before we have an answer. But unfortunately the universe is still moving on.”

He pointed a finger at a star cluster, thousands of light years from Earth. “The Kingdom of Harmonious Order,” he said. “Galactics, of course. One hundred and seven systems under their direct control, three subject races held in servitude. And long-standing allies of the Tokomak Empire. They lost their independence shortly after the stardrive was invented, like everyone else, but they were treated surprisingly well. The Tokomak honoured them with a great deal of local autonomy, trusting them to keep the remainder of the sector in line. They even built up a large fleet to support their allies.”

His face twisted into a smile. “Until recently, I doubt anyone on Harmony itself knew Earth even existed.”

“We were nothing more than a microstate by their standards,” Elton agreed. He made a mental note to look up the full details, as soon as he was back on his ship. “Have they decided to change their minds about us?”

“Apparently, there was a coup on their homeworld last year,” Admiral Stuart said. “A strong party at court, we have been told, resented being dominated by the Tokomak. That party seized power shortly after the Battle of Earth. They haven’t exactly declared independence, but they’re looking to … redefine … their relationship with their former masters.”

Elton studied the starchart for a long moment. “A dangerous game, I would have thought,” he said. “The Tokomak could flood their cluster with warships, couldn’t they?”

Admiral Stuart sighed. “Yes, they could,” he agreed. “Elton, everything we know is nearly nine months out of date. The Harmonies could have been brutally crushed by now. But, at the same time, it’s possible that they managed to talk fast enough to keep some of their independence. The Tokomak wouldn’t want to get involved in a war that would upset their other allies.”

He smiled, rather thinly. “ONI is divided on the issue,” he added. “One faction thinks that the Tokomak will crush the rebels as soon as possible, just to reverse the decline in their fortunes since the Battle of Earth. They have to make it clear that they haven’t lost the war, even if they have lost a battle. But another faction thinks that the Tokomak will reluctantly accept neutrality, if the Harmonies are prepared to stay out of the fighting.”

“I would bet on the former,” Elton said. “How many other Galactics will consider bolting if they think they can get away with it?”

“Good question,” Admiral Stuart said. “And that’s where you and your ship come in.”

He adjusted the starchart, zeroing in on Harmony itself. “We’ve received a message from the new king,” he said. “He has requested that we send an envoy to discuss opening up lines of communication, perhaps even membership in any future alliance structure. ONI believes that the Harmonies want to keep their options open, just in case their former masters decide to crush them.”

Elton stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “It seems a little odd,” he mused. “They’re taking one hell of a risk. It might panic the Tokomak into doing something drastic.”

“It might also convince them to leave the Harmonies alone,” Admiral Stuart said. “The king may hope to use this to get an official recognition of his kingdom’s independence. Or he may believe that working with us is the only way to safeguard the future.”

He shook his head. “You and your ship will be heading directly to the Kingdom of Harmonious Order,” he explained. “Officially, you’ll be transporting an envoy with authority to open discussions – everything from trade agreements to a formal alliance – and escorting a handful of freighters crammed with trade goods. Odyssey will be flagged as a formal diplomatic ship for the mission, although I don’t know how much protection that will give you in these times. The Tokomak may be fanatical rules lawyers, but they will not want to see us extending our influence in their direction.”

“Yes, sir,” Elton said. “And unofficially?”

“Unofficially, you’ll be carrying out a tactical survey of the region,” Admiral Stuart said, curtly. “We know – really know – very little about the sector. Everything we hear is at second or third hand. Much of it is translated repeatedly before it reaches us. In truth, we know very little. The merchants will be making their own inroads, of course, but we need more data.”

“Just in case we have to fight up there,” Elton said.

“Exactly,” Admiral Stuart said. “In particular, we want an assessment of the Harmonies themselves. Their fleet is supposed to be large, but outdated. Are they upgrading their fleets? Or are they gambling on numbers? Who crews the ships, how are they trained … everything we might have to take into consideration, if we have to ally with them or fight them. And if they are upgrading, are they interested in buying weapons and technology from us?

He looked at the starchart for a long moment. “ONI will give you a full briefing, but realistically … don’t take anything they tell you for granted.”

Elton nodded. It wasn’t uncommon for translation errors to creep into the files, even though the Tokomak had done everything in their power to make sure that everyone spoke one of nine standard languages. The average alien was no more or less intelligent than the average human, but aliens tended to think differently. ONI might be being misled – accidentally or not – and never know it.

And the time delay means that everything is out of date, he thought, sourly. The Tokomak might invade the sector tomorrow and we won’t know until we slip through the gravity point and emerge in the middle of a war.

“We’ll try and fill in the blanks,” he said, slowly. He knew better than to trust ONI completely. Intelligence officers had a tendency to think they were cleverer – or at least more knowledgeable – than they actually were. “I don’t know how long we’ll have to explore the sector, though.”

“I suggest you consult with the ambassador,” Admiral Stuart said. “Truthfully … we know so little, Elton, that we have to be very careful. Showing the flag in the wrong place may provoke a war.”

“The Harmonies have their own subjects,” Elton agreed. He frowned as a thought struck him. “What happens if they choose to rebel?”

“That would be a sticky problem,” Admiral Stuart said. “Ideally, you wouldn’t be involved at all. You don’t want to get us into a shooting war with the Harmonies as well as the Tokomak.”

“No, sir,” Elton said.

“The ambassador will have her own briefing,” Admiral Stuart said. “She’ll have wide latitude, within reason. Ideally, we won’t be making anyone any promises until we actually know what’s going on, but … events may move out of control. Use your own best judgement and be careful.”

“Yes, sir,” Elton said. “And if the Tokomak themselves show up?”

Odyssey on her own is unlikely to make a difference,” Admiral Stuart said. “Retreat at once.”

Elton nodded. He had every confidence in his ship’s ability to give the Tokomak ships a bloody nose, but sheer numbers could overwhelm them easily. The Solar Navy was all too aware that the Tokomak had literally millions of starships. If they ever managed to concentrate them against Sol, Sol was doomed.

And the Harmonies are far too close to Tokomak bases, he reminded himself. The Tokomak could muster the force necessary to strike them down at any moment.

“I understand,” he said. Retreat didn’t sit well with him, but preserving his ship and crew was his first priority. “When do you want us to depart?”

“Two days,” Admiral Stuart said. He grimaced. “You’ll be passing through Hudson Base, at the far end of the Langlock Chain, but after that you’ll be on your own. We won’t expect you to report back for over a year.”

Odyssey was designed for five-year missions, sir,” Elton said. “We can reproduce almost anything we might require in the fabricators.”

“A five-year mission,” Admiral Stuart repeated. He shook his head in amused disbelief. “Do you think, sometimes, that the cantons take their identities a little too far?”

Elton considered it. “As long as people can move out, if they wish, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “A canton that manages to make itself unviable won’t survive. Roddenberry Canton has its quirks, but it isn’t a disaster area.”

He smiled at the thought. Roddenberry Canton claimed to operate on the principles of Star Trek – and, if he were forced to be honest, it did a better job of following its source material than many of the other eccentric cantons. But then, it hadn’t needed to adapt itself to changing reality or rapid depopulation when its citizens had discovered that their ideals didn’t quite work in the real world. It wasn’t for everyone, something that was true of just about every canton in the Solar Union, but it worked for those who lived there.

“There are worse places to live,” Admiral Stuart agreed.

Elton nodded. Admiral Stuart was in his second century, easily old enough to remember when humanity was confined to a single planet. His brother might have founded the Solar Union – and then departed for deep space, leaving his creation to flourish on its own – but neither of them had anticipated just how deeply their work would change society. Old constants, things that Steve and Mongo Stuart had taken for granted, had fallen by the wayside. Elton and his fellows had grown up in a very different universe. He wondered, sometimes, just how the oldsters coped. They just weren’t used to rapid change.

And yet, they have seen so much, he thought. He couldn’t help feeling an odd flicker of sympathy. Do they yearn for constants once again?

But there were none, not in the Solar Union. Space was vast, with near-infinite resources just waiting to be exploited. Food and energy were cheap. There were thousands of cantons, each one offering a different lifestyle. Humans – and aliens, and AIs – were free to choose their own lifestyles, as long as they honoured the founding principles. And they had flourished. The wellspring of science, art and entertainment seemed bottomless. No one, not even Steve Stuart, could have envisioned the universe he’d created. The future seemed bright and full of promise.

But there were threats. And those threats had to be fought.

Admiral Stuart snapped off the holographic starchart. “I won’t tell you that this will be a simple mission, because it won’t be,” he said. “But I expect you and your ship to handle it.”

“Yes, sir,” Elton said. He rose. “We won’t let you down.”

“Good luck,” Admiral Stuart said. His lips quirked. “I’ll see you when you return home.”

Elton nodded and walked through the hatch, passing through the security fields as he headed down to the teleport station. A handful of messages popped up in front of his eyes as his implants automatically pinged the local processors, ranging from tactical updates to a detailed briefing of everything ONI knew – or believed – about the Harmonies. He reminded himself to study the information later, as he stepped into the teleport station. He’d have to make sure his senior officers went through it too.

Except everything we know might be out of date, he reminded himself, sternly. Or it might be completely wrong.

He couldn’t help a flicker of excitement. He was going to be taking his ship thousands of light years from Sol, heading further into deep space than any human had gone before. As far as he knew, he and his crew would be the first humans to visit the Harmonies, let alone establish diplomatic and trade links that might reshape the galaxy. It would be one hell of a flight, the kind of exploration he’d signed up to do. He couldn’t wait to leave.

And if we do manage to make new friends and allies, he thought as the teleport field gripped him, so much the better.

A Failed Presidency

10 Feb

A failed President is one who is no longer creditable during his term in office.

-John Reilly.

History will not be kind to Barrack Obama.


It is early, far too early, to pass final judgement on the Obama Presidency. As the old observation goes, the worst President in history is always the guy occupying the Oval Office at any given moment. And yet, with the world sliding remorselessly towards chaos, it is worth taking a look back at the past eight years and how they have affected the rest of the world.

Obama won, at least in part, because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. He didn’t have the baggage Hillary had, even back in 2008. He was personable and genuinely charming – being black didn’t hurt either, as there was an understandable desire to prove that anyone could become President – and made one hell of an impression. And yet, one does not need to question his birth certificate or religious leanings to realise that Obama was very ill-prepared to be President. If nothing else, a rather less pleasant term for ‘community organiser’ is ‘rabble-rouser.’

Like Trump in 2016, Obama was the ‘change’ candidate. He promised hope and change. What he didn’t have was the experience necessary to translate his ill-formed goals into reality. That didn’t seem to matter, back in those heady days. The world swooned over Obama – he was given the Nobel Peace Prize for doing absolutely nothing; comic books put out special issues pairing him with Spider-man and Captain America – but, like Tony Blair, Obama never seemed to realise that adulation doesn’t necessary translate into political influence. In short, Obama was told he was wonderful so many times that I think he actually started to believe it.

The problem facing the American President – any American President – is that while he is the most powerful man on the planet, that power has limits. Often, those limits are set – accidentally or not – by his predecessors. Bill Clinton’s weaknesses – and his reluctance to commit himself to deadly force – hampered George W. Bush during the early years of his presidency. Other limits are shaped by geopolitics, by ground truths that are often hidden from policymakers in Washington. The intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, is defined by realities that are often ignored by outsiders. There are limits on just how much influence someone a few thousand miles away can have on such problems, even if he is the president.

Obama rapidly ran into a series of stone walls, one after the other. His attempts to ‘reset’ relations with Russia, for example, were futile because nothing he could do could change the situation on the ground. Putin, a far more capable personality, had far more understanding of the geopolitical realities. Obama was essentially caught between doubling down and reinforcing NATO or striking a deal with Russia, both of which would have proved extremely unpopular. Instead, he tried to steer a course between them, accidentally making the situation a great deal worse.

(One of the reasons why Putin is so admired – and this isn’t a good thing – is because he is an efficient head of state.)

As the honeymoon ended, Obama struggled to cope with a number of problems that would have cowed a far more capable man. On the domestic front, his attempts to push health-care reform were a major disaster; on the international front, he actually made the global population long for George W. Bush! In Iraq, for example, Obama pulled combat troops out, thus keeping one of his major promises. But this left Iraq’s reconstruction incomplete, allowing Islamic State to rise to power. And while there was a great deal of satisfaction to be had in aiding rebels in Libya, it created yet another power vacuum and spread chaos across the region.

Obama was not the first POTUS to have problems in the Middle East. It is a complex region at the best of times. Indeed, it is never easy to judge the best time to abandon one’s former allies and make peace with their replacements. But Obama made no attempt to admit, let alone correct, his mistakes. Even when he finally authorised action against Islamic State, it was laughable – so laughable that Russia managed to make a splash by sending combat troops and aircraft to support Assad.

As Obama entered his second term, his narcissism became more and more apparent. Instead of embracing the dignity of his office, he could not resist injecting himself into all kinds of situations, from the George Zimmerman case and the infamous ‘clock-boy’ provocation to BREXIT. In all such situations, he invariably made matters worse and ended up with egg on his face. (Indeed, Zimmerman would have had excellent grounds for appeal, if he’d been convicted, thanks to Obama.) And yet, he also spent vast amounts of time (and public money) on holidays.

At the same time, he amassed vast amounts of executive power that wouldn’t remain in his hands indefinitely – those worried about Donald Trump wielding such power should thank Obama for setting all the precedents Trump could possibly need – and oversaw a colossal growth in the federal bureaucracy. Michelle Obama’s involvement with school lunches – note that her own children didn’t have to eat them – was just another unnecessary intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans, one that caused far more problems than it solved. And, at the same time, problems with the EPA went unpunished. He meddled freely in military affairs, weakening America’s military at a very dangerous period in world history; he hampered the military when it needed to destroy a lethal enemy. And he forced through a bargain with Iran that basically boiled down to giving a very dangerous regime everything it wanted – for nothing.

He also lashed out, more and more, at his enemies. Again, this proved disastrous. Playing the race card and supporting Black Lives Matter – and implicitly accepting the lies they use to justify their existence – only undermined race relations within the United States further, while turning the IRS, ATF and other federal services on his enemies undermined trust in the government itself. Internationally, he single-handedly crippled an alliance structure that the US had built up since 1945, convincing America’s oldest allies that America could not be trusted. Interfering in foreign elections – and the BREXIT vote – came back to bite him, hard, when Russia was accused of meddling in the US election. No one was particularly inclined to believe him.

And, in his last days of office, he spitefully set out to make Trump’s early days as difficult as possible. (And he is already hectoring his successor, defying the time-honoured tradition of not doing anything of the sort.)

The problems facing any POTUS – particularly today – are immense. Mistakes happen … and some of them can have quite serious consequences. No one, least of all me, would claim that being President is easy.

And yet Obama, who needed to learn on the job, failed to learn from his own mistakes. A strong man in his position could have accomplished much. Instead, he weakened America, both internally and externally. The consequences will haunt the Western World for a long time to come.

To be fair to Obama, he avoided personal scandals. But it was the political ones that destroyed any hope he had of a decent legacy. In the end, Obama will be remembered as the ‘divider-in-chief’ – and as a failure.

Maybe this is a harsh judgement. Maybe Obama will look better after two years of President Trump (just as Bush looked better after Obama). But I think it will pass the test of time.