Archive | August, 2017

Ask A Writer: Sex and Writing

30 Aug

How much sex (and details) should a writer include in his book?

To be honest, this is very much a subjective question and answer. I can only speak for myself.

As far as I am concerned, you can – for the purpose of this question – divide books into two categories: Erotic Fiction and Everything Else. In the case of the former, they are effectively books about romance and sex, either in terms of a wider story (boy meets girl, etc) or a very short erotic encounter. I don’t write them so my opinions are probably valueless.

For everything else, the answer is a little more complex.

In my opinion, sex in books exists to either drive the plot or showcase character development. I don’t go into great detail – most of the time – because I don’t see it as necessary. I don’t write erotic fiction and many a great series has been derailed because the author decided it would be better to write more erotic sections than action and plot. Obviously, different people will have different ideas of what actually derails the story. I have a habit of simply flipping through the sex scenes in a number of otherwise good series I like to read.

A major consideration here is just what the audience expects. They didn’t pick up the book to read erotic fiction. (Unless they did, in which case they probably knew what they were getting <grin>). I once downgraded an otherwise excellent book because the author included a scene I could best describe as ‘tentacle sex.’ People who want an SF or fantasy book probably don’t want elaborate zero-g or hot vampire sex.

Beyond that, there’s also the question of age. A book written for children or teenagers should probably contain less detail – Harry Potter never went further than a few kisses, Hood’s Army had the hero and heroine sharing a bedroom, but no actual details. The more detail you have, the greater the possibility of putting someone off. Personally, I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss sex and sexuality in books aimed at children. Even with books aimed at older readers, it’s possible to give false impressions or unfortunate implications – Edward of Twilight is a stalker, not a ‘one true love.’

But like I said, this is a subjective topic. What do my readers think?

The World of The Unkindest Cut

30 Aug

This is background for something I’ve been planning, something slightly different to the rest of my work.  Obviously, it draws a lot of inspiration from the French Revolution.

Very little is known about the history of Algarve, a mid-sized nation on the planet of Parnassus, before the arrival of the Imperator. What is known is that the Church of the Imperator systematically destroyed almost all records and ruins dating back to the Imperator’s birth. There are stories told on the edge of the Imperator’s Empire, but very few of them are considered reliable. To whisper them near Vendee is to court death.

The Imperator appeared from nowhere, a thousand years before the Algarve Revolution. His origins remain a mystery. The Church of the Imperator’s official dogma is that the Imperator was the son of God, although various offshoots have alternatively declared the Imperator either a god in his own right or son of a god. What cannot be denied is that the Imperator possessed vast powers. Stories abound of him waving his hand and slaughtering entire armies in fire, or single-handedly tearing down stone walls and sinking ships. In a very short space of time, depending on which story you believe, he ruled an empire that dominated the continent.

Establishing a capital at Vendee, he took a number of wives from the various aristocracies he’d forced into submission. (The exact number of wives is unknown, but believed to be quite high.) His children possessed powers of their own, ranging from great warriors who had the strength of fifty men to healers who could bless the sick. By the time the Imperator died, having appointed the strongest of his children to rule in his place, he ruled two-thirds of the world.

His son ruled as Imperator and his son followed him. The Imperator’s children and grandchildren rapidly displaced the previous nobility, assuming their powers and becoming something of a ruling caste. However, their powers were already starting to wane. Five hundred years – and seven or so generations after the Imperator – most of the magic had faded from their bloodlines. A young man who could set a building on fire might be hailed as a true descendant of the Imperator, but he rarely possessed the power to make a bid for the throne.

The slow loss of the powers had inevitable effects on the empire. A handful of noblemen declared themselves the true heirs to the Imperator, mounting challenges to the throne, while governors and warlords tried to declare independence. Some were crushed, at high cost; others managed to secure an independence that, the Imperator’s Court insisted, was only temporary. (The fact that some of these warlords controlled artefacts forged by the Imperator himself, if the legends are to be believed, only muddied the waters.) A thousand years after the Imperator, the empire he forged is in serious trouble.

Politically, Algarve is divided into a series of castes. First, there are the aristocrats, who hold most of the power. Below them are the churchmen, the state bureaucrats and military officers; at the bottom, the peasants, merchants, soldiers and sailors. It is very difficult for someone to rise above their caste, let alone fall down. An impoverished nobleman may not be able to rub two coins together, but still look down on a prosperous merchant.

The problems facing Algarve are legion – and the current Imperator is completely unable to handle them. First, the government is simply too large to be efficient; the bureaucracy has reached a point where getting orders and funds from the capital to the provinces is pretty much impossible. Second, the endless series of wars to protect the remains of the empire has effectively bankrupted the state, a problem made worse by the vast number of wealthy aristocrats and churchmen who are exempt from taxation (but can still claim stipends from the government). Third, the commoners – farmers, merchants and peasants – are in a state of simmering tension, only kept in check by the threat of vast military force and loyalty to the Imperator. (Peasant revolts are more focused on freeing the Imperator from his ‘evil counsellors’ than actually overthrowing him.) Fourth, bad harvests and famine have been plaguing the land for years.

Worse, the aristocrats have proven themselves unable to handle their responsibilities. Military officers, appointed by birth rather than merit, have been largely unsuccessful in waging wars. (And the handful who have scored victories find themselves the enemies of people who fear what a popular military officer could do.) Landowners, bureaucrats and more have simply been unable to cope with the endless series of problems, further destroying the government’s credibility.

The situation now is best described as unstable. While there is an uneasy peace with Arthur, Algarve’s main enemy, Algarve itself is restless. The aristocracy scrabbles over scraps of power, the churchmen battle heresy that questions the very origins of the empire, the middle class – such as it is – struggles to acquire a say in politics while the commoners and peasants starve. Some noblemen have been raising their own armies, either to protect their lands or make a bid for power; some commoners have been banding together in self-defence militias, preparing to defend themselves against the depredations of the taxman. Vast swathes of the countryside no longer pay anything more than lip service to the central government.

Technologically, Algarve is somewhere around 1750s. Firearms consist of flintlocks and cannons, although the various independent states are pushing development as fast as possible. Steam technology is a concept, but – so far – actual steamships are non-existent. Most ships are wooden, powered by sails rather than steam. The vast majority of people still live and work on the farm, particularly in Algarve, where they’d bound to the land from birth till death. However, the growth of a middle class – and social unrest – is changing things, slowly.

Although there are always rumours of magic – and aristocrats developing powers – none of them have been confirmed. Fakes and frauds roam the countryside, some practicing stage magic rather than real magic, although this has gotten more dangerous as both aristocrats and commoners lash out at the fakes. Country dwellers talk of ‘pixie rings’ and places where fairies can be seen, but none of these are believed to be more than stories.

Updates and Zero Curse Snippet

29 Aug

So, here we are again <grin>

The first piece of good news is that I finished the draft of The Zero Curse today. Ideally, I’ll have the first set of edits done by the end of the week, then I can send it directly to the story editor. (TZB got an extensive edit, for various reasons; TZC deserves the same.) If we are lucky, it will be released midway through September.

The second piece of good news is that I finished the first set of edits for The Gordian Knot. There will probably be a second set of edits – and we’re waiting on the cover – but if we’re lucky it will be released late September/early October. I’ll have hopefully finished the first draft of Graduation Day by then too.

The third piece of good news is that the audio version of The Zero Blessing is due out 12th September.

And to celebrate, here’s an (unedited) snippet from The Zero Curse.

Zero Curse Final Cover R2 FOR WEB

Chapter Two

I was tempted, very tempted, to pretend I hadn’t heard the dinner gong, when it echoed through the house. But I knew my mother would not be fooled. She’d spelled the gong to ensure that anyone within the grounds could hear it, even if they were in the library or a sealed workroom. I finished the last of the runes, then hurried back to my bedroom. The maids had already laid my clothes on the bed.

At least they don’t have to worry about me warding my room, I thought sourly, as I closed the door behind me. My sisters could use magic to keep their possessions safe – and unhexed – but I wasn’t so lucky. They just have to worry about keeping Great Aunt Stregheria happy instead.

I couldn’t help feeling a flicker of sympathy. This time, thankfully, my parents had not insisted that we wait hand and foot on the old crone, but that meant that the duty was shifted to the younger maids. I didn’t think there was any crime that deserved such a horrific punishment. If Great Aunt Stregheria was rude and thoroughly unpleasant to us, her nieces, I dreaded to think how horrible she must be to minor family. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d been told the maids had quit on the spot rather than work for us any longer.

The dress was as frilly and absurd as I feared, I discovered. Mum didn’t normally bother making us dress for dinner, but with Great Aunt Stregheria at the table we had to look our best. I glanced wistfully at the shower, then at the grandfather clock my parents had given me after I returned home. There wasn’t time to do more than wash my hands and splash water on my face before I got dressed. Being late for a formal dinner – even a dinner that only featured one guest – was the sort of thing that would lead to a frank exchange of views with my mother. She detested Great Aunt Stregheria, but she detested rudeness still more.

I pulled on the wretched dress, then inspected myself in the mirror. The long white grown looked faintly absurd on my lanky form, even though it contrasted nicely with the colour of my skin. I was lucky that mum hadn’t joined other High Society ladies when it came to the latest fashions for growing girls. I’d seen dresses that were so absurdly complex that the wearer needed two maids to help them get the dresses on and off. I couldn’t help feeling as though the girls were forced to wear them, which made me wonder why the adults wore similar dresses. But then, the dictates of fashion had always been a mystery to me.

Mum would have to use magic to force me into such a dress, I thought.

I smiled at the thought, even though it wasn’t really amusing. Thankfully, my mother had given me something relatively comfortable. Alana might enjoy wearing ballroom gowns that were really scaled-down adult dresses, but I never had. I was not going to walk around wearing a fanned-out dress so large that sitting down at the dinner table would prove impossible. I’d long since come to believe that the reason society ladies stayed so thin was because they couldn’t sit down to dinner, while eating on one’s feet was regarded as bad manners. But perhaps it had something more to do with the formal dancing afterwards.

Pulling my hair down, I braided it into a long ponytail and inspected it in the mirror. Great Aunt Stregheria would sniff, I was sure, if there was even a single hair out of place. She’d probably be looking for some reason to complain, if I knew her. It was a mystery to me why anyone asked her back for a second time. I was fairly sure that my father hadn’t invited her, not after what had happened two years ago. But that did raise the question of why she’d come.

And why Dad let her through the gate, I thought, as clipped on my earrings and concealed a bracelet high up my sleeve. Mum banned her from the estate after she used her magic on us.

The second gong rang, the sound echoing through the house. I swallowed hard – the prospect of facing Great Aunt Stregheria again was enough to make me want to run away – and headed for the door. June, the youngest of the maids, stood outside, looking as if she was nerving herself up to knock. I don’t know why she was so worried. It wasn’t as if she was dancing attendance on Great Aunt Stregheria. In her place, I would have been thrilled to be well away from the guest wing.

“You look lovely, My Lady,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, tartly. The dress might not have been uncomfortable, but it wasn’t what I liked to wear. “Leave the room alone. I’ll clean it up later.”

June curtseyed, a flicker of … something … crossing her face. I felt a stab of guilt, which blurred into the butterflies in my stomach. It was probably too late to commit some hideous crime that would get me sent to bed without supper. And even if I did, my mother would probably insist that having to go to dinner was a worse punishment than going without. An evening with Great Aunt Stregheria would feel like an eternity.

I touched the bracelet on my arm as I walked down the corridor, passing a long row of portraits that glowered down at me disapprovingly. I’d often wondered just how I fitted into the family, even though I could draw and wield the Family Sword. The Aguirre Family dates all the way back to the Thousand-Year Empire, if you believe our historians. We have always been powerful magicians, counsellors to kings … sometimes even kingmakers in our own right. My lack of magic had shamed the entire line. Alana had told me, more than once, that I’d be disowned – or worse – the moment she took over the family. There had been times when I feared my parents would disown me well before they died.

And now they know what I can do, I thought. They don’t want to disown me now.

A cold shiver ran down my spine as I reached the formal dining room. It was immense, easily large enough to accommodate a couple of hundred people. The large table in the centre of the chamber looked tiny, faintly absurd compared to the immensity of the room. I would have preferred the family dining room, which was smaller and more comfortable, but my mother clearly had other ideas. Perhaps she was hinting that Great Aunt Stregheria was far from welcome. I rather doubted Great Aunt Stregheria had gotten the message.

My father sat at one end of the table, his face utterly expressionless; my mother sat at the other, her lips so thin with disapproval that they’d practically vanished. Great Aunt Stregheria sat next to my father, her dark eyes cold and hard. Belladonna, my other sister, sat on the far side, as far from our unwelcome guest as she could without being unbearably rude. The tension in the air was so thick that you could cut it with a knife.

“Caitlyn,” Dad said. He rose, indicating the seat next to Great Aunt Stregheria. “Please, take a seat.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. My mouth was dry. Sitting next to Great Aunt Stregheria … I would sooner have sat next to a basilisk. Or a dragon. At least it would have been over quickly. I walked around the table, pausing long enough to curtsey to my mother, then took the seat. Courtesy forbade me from inching the chair away from the vindictive old crone.

Great Aunt Stregheria turned to look at me. I looked back, fighting down the urge to cringe back in my chair. It was hard to believe that she was related to my father, even though I’d seen her wield the Family Sword too. My father was a tall, powerfully-built man; Great Aunt Stregheria was slight, but with an attitude of power and menace that made her look like a vulture eying wounded prey. Her skin was still flawless, her hair as black as night … I couldn’t help wondering if she used magic to keep it that way. My father was twenty or so years younger than her and he was already showing signs of going grey.

Perhaps it’s having us as kids, I thought, as I turned my attention to the table. The maids had covered the table with a white cloth, then laid out a dozen sets of cutlery each. Great Aunt Stregheria never married, let alone had children.

I should have felt sorry for her, I knew. Even now, Great Aunt Stregheria wore her hair down, signifying an unmarried woman of marriageable age. And yet, she had never married, never had children. It was one of the reasons her parents – my grandparents – had decided to pass the family headship to my father, rather than someone close to them in age. But the nasty part of my mind had no trouble understanding why Great Aunt Stregheria was still unmarried, despite her family ties. There wasn’t enough wealth and power in the world to make someone willingly spend the rest of their life with her.

Mum cleared her throat. “Where is Alana?”

Bella looked up. “I haven’t seen her all day, Mum …”

I froze as the realisation crashed into my head. I’d left Alana frozen … and she was still frozen. It was the only explanation of why she hadn’t made it to dinner. Alana admired Great Aunt Stregheria, even though she feared the old crone too. And besides, she knew better than to be late. Alana had always taken the social niceties more seriously than either Bella or me.

Dad eyed me, suspiciously. He practically had a sixth sense for when one of us had done something Not Allowed.


I wanted to lie. But I knew better. “I … I reflected her spell onto her and left her frozen in the cupboard, near my workroom,” I said. “She must still be trapped.”

My father gave me a look that promised trouble later, then rang the bell for the maid. When Lucy appeared, he told her where to find Alana and escort her to the dining room as quickly as possible. I groaned inwardly, kicking myself for forgetting. Alana wouldn’t have time to change, let alone do anything else. She’d have to come to the table in her afternoon dress. My parents might not object – much – to us casting spells on each other, but they’d be annoyed if we made them look bad in front of outsiders. And Great Aunt Stregheria would rub it in as much as possible.

We sat in uncomfortable silence until Alana arrived, her face a mask that concealed pure rage. I would have to watch my back for the next few days. Alana would slam a hex into me as soon as she got a chance. And while I could protect myself – now – to some extent, she knew I wasn’t invulnerable. She was certainly smart enough to think of a way to get around my protections.

“Be seated,” Dad said. His dark eyes swept the table. “Let us give thanks to our ancestors for our lineage.”

I cupped my hands over the table and muttered the prayer, under my breath. I’d been told that my ancestors looked down on us from the Realm of the Dead, but I didn’t really believe it. My ancestors had probably turned their backs on me a long time ago. And I wasn’t sure my father believed it either, although he was careful to keep the family shine in good repair. But Great Aunt Stregheria would have called him out for dishonouring our ancestors, if he’d missed the prayer.

My father rang the bell, again. “Let us eat.”

I did my best to ignore the looming presence of Great Aunt Stregheria – and the nasty looks Alana sent me from time to time – as we ate our way through a five-course meal. Henry had excelled himself, as always. I would have enjoyed the carrot soup and roast lamb if I hadn’t been uneasily aware that the real business would be concluded over dessert. Great Aunt Stregheria had to have a reason to visit, after all. Something had to have changed, recently, to make her visit us – and make my parents let her in the house. And I could only think of one thing that had changed.

“The trade dispute with Salonika has been resolved, in our favour,” Great Aunt Stregheria said. She spent much of her time in Tintagel, the capital of the Kingdom of Tintagel. (Our ancestors were really imaginative people, I don’t think.) I couldn’t help wondering why King Rufus hadn’t banished her to some distant estate years ago. “You should be seeing more trading ships over the next few years.”

“That is good,” my father said. “And the … disagreement … with Valona?”

“It remains unresolved,” Great Aunt Stregheria informed him. “Valona is unwilling to make border concessions until we resolve the issue of access to what remains of the Eternal City.”

Alana leaned forward. “I thought they could just sail around to the inner sea and travel directly to the Eternal City.”

Great Aunt Stregheria sneered at her. “Everyone knows that the waters around the Eternal City are infested with monsters,” she said, in the tone one would use to address a very stupid child. “Sailing ships cannot reach the city with any guarantee of return.”

Alana looked crushed. I was torn between feeling sorry for her and an odd guilty pleasure in her humiliation. She’d treated me poorly for years. I’d spent more time than I cared to think about as a frog, or a toad, or something inanimate, purely because Alana had wanted to practice her hexes. And yet, she didn’t deserve to be verbally shredded by a woman old enough to be her grandmother. Great Aunt Stregheria didn’t look remotely ashamed. I was very glad she’d never had children.

“We are currently haggling over access rights through the Blyton Pass,” Great Aunt Stregheria continued, ignoring my mother’s sharp look with practiced ease. “But His Majesty is reluctant to allow complete access unless we have the right to inspect caravans leaving the cursed lands.”

“One would consider it pointless,” Alana muttered. She shot me a sharp look. “There’s only one secret to be found, isn’t there?”

“Correct,” Great Aunt Stregheria said. She turned to look at me. “And now that secret is out.”

I tried to look back evenly, although she was sizing me up like a piece of meat on the market stall. There was only one secret from the Eternal City that everyone wanted, the secret of how to make Objects of Power. Objects of Power had been what turned a relatively small city in a poorly-populated region into the master of much of the known world, but the secret of how they’d been made had been lost when the city fell. And I’d cracked that secret weeks ago.

And word is spreading, I thought. Dad had taken me from the school immediately after my duel with Isabella, but the rumours had already started. By now, they would be halfway around the world. No wonder Great Aunt Stregheria came to visit.

Great Aunt Stregheria turned her attention back to my father. “It has become common for an aristocratic child to be fostered in the home of a distant relative,” she said. “Such practices are meant to teach the child social graces and introduce the young one to society without the distracting presence of a pair of doting parents. Many of my friends are playing host to children from across the kingdom and even outside it. The youngsters are gaining much from being fostered.”

From being in the capital, I finished. And meeting people who will grow up to be the next generation of rulers and generals and everything else a society needs to work.

I understood how it worked, even though I’d never liked it. I’d grown up in Shallot, where there were hundreds of aristocratic children; I knew everyone who was powerful or likely to become so, when their parents died. And yet, my lack of magic ensured that they had never really been my peers. I had been an outcast. But someone who grew up on a distant country estate might be the only aristocratic child for miles around. Socialising with children far below their lofty birth just was not done. Sending them to be fostered was the only logical solution.

Unless you decide to spend time with the commoners instead, I thought. Rose was a common-born girl and she was my best friend. And she was a powerful magician. She might have been more powerful than either of my sisters, if she’d been trained from birth. But hardly anyone would do that outside school.

Great Aunt Stregheria was still speaking. “Such an arrangement has many advantages for the parents as well,” she added. She sounded faintly amused. “Quite apart from being free of their little darlings for several years, save for the occasional home visit, they gain access to a network of society patrons and clients who are willing to promote them to the king.”

“We are aware of the tradition,” my mother said, flatly. Her voice was toneless, but I knew from bitter experience that that meant she was angry. “Is there a point to this discussion?”

I blinked. Mum was rarely so rude. She must be really angry.

Great Aunt Stregheria looked back at her, then at me.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Her eyes bored into mine. I looked away. “I would like to foster Caitlyn in Tintagel.”


But What Did Nelson Ever Do For Us?

24 Aug

Quite a lot, actually.

Those British schoolchildren unfortunate enough to attend schools where history is glossed over, where it is taught at all, might be forgiven for thinking that Horatio Nelson was just some dude on a pillar in London. This raises the obvious question of what he did to get a permanent memorial of himself in Britain’s capital. What did he do?


Saved Britain from invasion, for starters.

Horatio Nelson was born in 1758, an age of war. He joined the Royal Navy in 1771 and rose rapidly to command, then to flag rank. He commanded the British fleet during the Battle of the Nile in 1798, where he won a major and decisive victory; later, he also commanded the British fleet during the Battle of Trafalgar, falling to enemy fire even as he won his greatest, most famous and most significant victory. And those two battles were merely the most remarkable of his career. Nelson was a larger than life figure in an age dominated by great men: Napoleon, Wellington, Tsar Alexander I and many – many – others. He lived a life so full of adventure that many of us today can barely imagine it.

The Battle of the Nile made it impossible for the French to press on from Egypt and either crush the Ottoman Empire or press east into India. It led, eventually, to the humiliating end of Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure (Napoleon managed to extract himself before the final end and flee back to Paris, where he became dictator and eventually emperor.) But Trafalgar was the crowning masterpiece because it broke, once and for all, Napoleon’s hopes of invading England. Secure behind our wooden walls, we in Britain could continue to fund the war effort against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and – eventually – land forces to end the war on our terms. The century of the Pax Britannia owes much to British dominance of the sea and dominance of the sea owes much, in turn, to Nelson.

But there was another far more important effect. France, before and after the Revolution, was a command economy, although one far laxer (owing to the limits of contemporary technology) than modern day socialist/communist states. Britain, although far from a libertarian society, was a merchant-dominated nation. A nation of shopkeepers, Napoleon was supposed to have sneered. Yet it was that nation that produced the rule of law and constitutional ideas which would lay the seeds for the west. Many of our modern-day ideas, ones now so ingrained in our society that we don’t think to question their existence, date all the way back to the French Revolutionary period and beyond. There is no question that Britain’s victory – over both Revolutionary and Napoleonic France – was good for everyone.

And we owe much of that to Nelson.

In his day, he was a celebrity. And he deserved every moment of his fame. Did David Beckham save Britain? Did Andy Murray defeat our enemies? I sometimes think that we live in an age of small men … although the modern news media may have something to do with that. Everyone has feet of clay.

Nelson was not perfect, of course. No one is wholly a saint or irredeemably evil. He was an adulterer, with a string of liaisons – most notably with Emma Hamilton, with whom he had a daughter out of wedlock. His treatment of his wife was thoroughly despicable. He was, in many ways, a contemptible social climber who sucked up to his betters … although he didn’t show the scorn and arrogance towards his men shown by too many other naval officers of that era. His death may have saved him from a long slow decline into eventual irrelevance (although other heroes of that era lived brilliant lives until death finally caught up with him.)

And yet he was a hero. We remember him because of what he did for us. He was a flawed man, but a hero nonetheless.

So why am I writing this, you might ask?

There’s a campaign afoot, apparently, to knock down Nelson’s Column in London. Taking their cue from a particularly loony faction in American politics, these people want to remove Nelson – a vital part of British history. This is not the first time campaigners in Britain have wanted to remove historical artefacts, but this one is particularly vile. Nelson is a part of our history that we must not forget, part of an era when Britain stood against chaos and tyranny and saved Europe from a brutal dictatorship.

I’d like to believe that this campaign is a joke. That it is yet another piece of ‘fake news,’ that I will wind up with egg on my face after I post this blog. But something in me thinks otherwise. We have entered an era where the great men of the past are held to standards that meant nothing to them, then erased from history when they fail to live up to our extracting standards. (The fact that so few famous people of our era live up to them seems to have passed unnoticed.) This isn’t just absurd, it is dangerous. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it!

What can we learn from Nelson’s era? There’s the fundamental danger of keeping the lid screwed down tight on discontent, thus ensuring that the eventual explosion will be all the greater. That’s what triggered the revolution, the terror and ultimately the dictatorship in France. And then there’s the problems inherent in a command economy, instead of one allowed to grow naturally. That’s what weakened France in the war. And there’s the advantages of allowing talent to flourish, instead of promoting by birth. That gave France a significant advantage, although Nelson came from yeoman stock instead of the British aristocracy.

And then there’s the need to have a solid plan to win and the willingness to keep going, despite setbacks, that would daunt anyone. That’s what ultimately allowed us to win.

No one would deny that British history has its darker moments. And yet, we must not forget that those darker moments are part of a greater whole. Nor is there anything to be gained by trying to judge the figures of the past by modern-day standards. There is much to be proud of in our long history. Horatio Nelson is one of our heroes. We must not forget him or any of the others, the bad as well as the good. They made us what we are.

Horatio Nelson does not deserve to be erased from history. And those who would try do not have our best interests at heart.

Submissions Wanted: The Poor Bloody Infantry

20 Aug

(Please feel free to share.)

I’ve been spending some time, over the last few weeks, planning a charity anthology of short stories, with a basic theme of ‘near-future British military operations.’ The stories can feature coalition wars – NATO against Russia in 2020, for example – but should be focused on the British contingent. You can write on a large canvas or centre the story on a single soldier, as you wish.

I’m looking for stories from British writers – or writers who can write the British convincingly. Stories should be around 1500-9000 words, although that is not a solid limit and I will make exceptions if someone plans a novella or something along those lines. As this is for charity, there will be no profits – but your name will be on the anthology and you can use your ‘about the author’ section to promote your work.

If you’re interested in taking part, please drop me an email and we’ll see if we can get started.

Offended By The Offended

19 Aug

Did you talk to anyone in the non-outraged camp first? To those feminists who originally recommended it? Did you engage in a rigorous discussion at all? Or did you just cave?

Scott Westerfeld.

That is what the guys at Penny Arcade decided to stand up against. Not the idea that the critics were going to take away their freedom of speech. They did not agree that they were trivializing rape. They did not agree with the criticisms levelled against them. They did not agree with the insinuation that they think rape is fine because some people couldn’t understand a joke.


Every so often, I hear a statement that boils down to ‘female writers cannot write female characters that appeal to male readers.’

And when dealing with this statement, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle it.

The wrong way is to scream SEXISM as loudly as possible and raise a hue and cry, demanding that the unfortunate ignorant be punished in a manner most gruesome (or at least be convinced that ‘freedom of speech’ means ‘freedom to mouth politically-correct opinions.’)

The right way is to point to the number of exceptions to this rule and argue that the rule itself is bunk. This makes logical sense. If there is an exception to the rule, the rule is utter nonsense. People like Elizabeth Moon, to pick just one, prove that the rule doesn’t work.

They don’t prove it by whining about bad reviews or negative readers who are interrogating the text from the wrong perspective. They do it by going out there and proving that they can do it.

Ok, you ask. So what?

There have been times in my life when I felt I have been conned. These range from someone trying a move I believed to be forbidden to someone claiming they didn’t have to pay out on an insurance payment because [reasons]. And every time that happened, my first reaction was a hot and emotional YOU CAN’T DO THAT!

This is a normal human reaction. But shouting and screaming doesn’t really get you very far – or at least it shouldn’t. When you calm down, you’d better be able to point to something that proves you actually were conned. If you can make a reasonable case that you are right and someone else is wrong, you have a greater chance of convincing everyone else that you’re the good guy.

These days, far too many people believe that throwing a tantrum if you don’t get what you want – at once – is an effective way to proceed. But it isn’t. If you’re lucky, you get what you want – at the price of everyone else’s utter contempt. And if you’re unlucky, you just look like an adult child who simply cannot be taken seriously. If people regard you as a liability, as someone who will explode under the slightest provocation, they’re not going to want to have anything to do with you. Why should they?


The kerfuffle surrounding The Black Witch left me rolling my eyes. I can fully understand why some readers might have found the book problematic, although – like so much else – the word ‘problematic’ has been overused so often that it is now effectively meaningless. But when detractors are making claims of real-world harm being caused by the book – or a number of other titles – is it really wrong to ask for proof?

Emotions are not always reliable. Anger is a poor servant and a far worse master. Anger is very – very – good at overriding common sense. Worse, it tends to hide the fact that you might not actually have a leg to stand on. Worst of all, it tells you – when everyone else doesn’t immediately join in your personal Two Minutes Hate – that they are the enemy, that they must be destroyed. It is this that leads Social Justice Bullies – who are driven by incoherent anger – to lash out at those who have opinions that are one tiny millimetre closer to the right than the bullies themselves.

Such anger is rarely worth taking seriously. I was disappointed, therefore, that Kirkus saw fit to respond to attacks against The Black Witch. On one hand, there was both the principle of freedom of speech and the importance of showing a person’s journey from unwitting racism to being ‘woke;’ in the other, there was a belief – apparently sincere – that The Black Witch actually hurt marginalised people! We are not talking about the Death Note here. Nor, more seriously, are we talking about genuinely racist or sexist screeds that purport to ‘prove’ that one social group is superior to others. We are talking about a work of fiction that is, if anything, goes quite some way to be anti-racist.

The emotional mind will class both John Norman and Jack Chalker as misogynists. Yet what would the rational mind say? The rational mind might well agree that a strong case could be made that John Norman was indeed a misogynist. And such a case might be convincing enough to stand the test of time, although – and this is a point that should be noted – it may be true. But Jack Chalker? The rational mind would be a great deal less sure. Chalker presented a great deal of violence against women, but his books never justify it as right.

Somehow, no one has managed to construct a rational case against The Black Witch.

The author of the review that started this little tempest in a teapot responded to the response (it’s in the comments, third from the top).

“I was hoping that by commenting on your review, that Kirkus would be willing to have a nuanced conversation that took into account the harm done to marginalized readers. Your review and this [response] only illustrates how far behind Kirkus is on the discourse surrounding diversity.”

I wish I didn’t believe that someone could write something like this and expect it to be taken seriously.

This, and the rest of the response, is hugely accusatory. The writer appears to be driven by anger, by a belief that all decent people must agree that she is right and everyone who disagrees is wrong. Worse, she asserts that the writer of the response – Vicky Smith – decided that her ‘opinion was more important than the voices of marginalized people.’ This raises an obvious question – what proof does the reviewer have that any actual harm was done?

Such an aggressive response suggests – very strongly – that the reviewer is not interested in a fair and reasoned debate. Nor does it suggest she’s actually a writer herself.

I’ve written both first-person and third-person books where I invite readers to look through the POV character’s eyes. In both cases, the problem of the unreliable narrator comes to the fore. The POV character cannot see her own blinders and preconceptions because, if she could see them, she wouldn’t have them. A person does not wake up and say ‘I’m going to do something stupid today, even though I know better.’ They do something without being aware – at least at first – that it was a mistake. And a very good author can word the text to make it clear to the outside reader that the character is making a mistake without depicting the character as irredeemably stupid.

In the case of The Black Witch, the main character cannot say ‘all these preconceptions are stupid, but I’m going to keep them anyway because …’ Of course not. There’s no point in writing a story about a character growing and developing when there is no actual need for them to improve. When she sees things that challenge her preconceptions, she starts questioning her preconceptions. She wouldn’t have to do that if she didn’t have those preconceptions in the first place.

I admit that this can make a character hard to like. Someone who argues that women should stay out of politics would not be a very sympathetic character, even though it was a common attitude a hundred years ago. A number of authors, therefore, do try to give their characters more modern attitudes, even when they don’t fit. It’s an understandable bid for sympathy that jars with historical truth. But in this case a character has no room to grow.

But does this actually cause harm? Real-life harm?

NK Jemsin asserted, in a blog post, that JK Rowling could have made her Magical North America work ‘without causing real harm to a lot of real people.’ Like I said above, where is the proof that someone was hurt? One may be offended or annoyed by common or garden misconceptions – or a poorly-written background – without being actually hurt. I’m Scottish, but I don’t much care if someone calls me English. Nor am I particularly offended by Groundskeeper Willie or the Mistress. And yes, Scots have been marginalised and oppressed in the past. The assertion that a fictional world can somehow warp the real world out of shape strikes me as ridiculous. Where is the harm?

On one hand, a person closer to the matter at hand might take it a little more seriously. I’ll grant them that much. But on the other, the amount of effort spent on ‘calling out’ people someone disagrees with is absurd. The hysterics are worse. It is very hard to take some of the ranters seriously, even when they have a point. The people who protested For Such A Time were not wrong, IMHO, to find the book problematic. I shared much of their reaction to the concept of the book. (I never actually read it.) But the assumption that everyone who disagreed with them was de facto supporting forbidden (or dangerously unwise) love was poisonous.

This makes it impossible to have a reasonable discussion, let alone put forward reasonable criticism. We have entered an era where the mere assertion that a book is somehow problematic – for example, the charge that it promotes rape culture – is enough to damn it, its author, and anyone who dares suggest that the critic might be wrong. And when writers, publishers and reviewers surrender – such as when a handful of readers took issue with a small number of books on Bitch Magazine’s 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader – it only encourages what I can only think of as bullying. As one commenter put it:

It mirrors EXACTLY the process by which book banners remove books from schools and libraries–namely, one person makes a comment, no one actually checks, book gets yanked.”

It is quite easy to come up with a rational explanation of why Twilight, or Hush, or even Peppa Pig might be problematic. But does that automatically mean that they should be banned?

People are entitled to their opinions. They are entitled to share their opinions. What they are not entitled to do is assume that their opinion represents a major emergency on everyone else’s part. Nor are they entitled to believe that authors, publishers and reviewers they disagree with should rewrite books, pull books or even refuse to review books based on their opinions. An assertion that a book is ‘problematic,’ ‘triggering’ or any of the other hard-to-define buzzwords does not constitute de facto proof of anything. And a failure to move immediately does not indicate malicious intent.


I’ve noticed that an awful lot of the ‘offended’ are rarely responsible for handling matters themselves. They are not the ones charged with doing … well, anything. That makes it easy for them to sit in the backseat and call out advice, while the poor driver in the front is balancing multiple different problems and wishing that the backseat would just shut up before the car crashes into a wall. A person who does not have anything at stake – and no reason to understand the issues involved – can complain all they like. The ‘driver’ has too many other things to worry about.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched conventions stagger under demands from people who are not on the operating committee. These have included everything from demands for a accessibility policy or a code of conduct to the removal of controversial GOHs, staff members and even con-goers. And yes, on the face of it, some of these requests are quite valid. I quite agree that a convention should do everything within its power to make sure that the venue is safe, secure and accessible.

But the people responsible for running the convention cannot make a snap decision and then enforce it. The implications must be taken into careful account. It is difficult to write an accessibility policy before you know precisely what the venue can and will (and won’t) do for you. There is no way you can sell tickets before you know all of the con rooms will be open to the disabled, otherwise you will be assured of fraud. Nor can you remove someone from the guest list without careful consideration. The possibility of being sued for breach of contract – GOHs normally have a contract with the convention organisers – or outright defamation must be taken into account. And there is the prospect of facing more demands after they surrender to the first one.

Making a decision is not something that can be done instantly.

Nor is it something that can be handed – rationally – when the hysterics are growing louder and louder, with threats of boycotts and accusations of discrimination spreading on the internet. People generally resent being bullied, even if the bully has a valid point; they particularly resent being pushed into making a hasty decision when they, not the bully, are the ones at risk if there are any adverse consequences. There is a very strong tendency to dig in one’s heels and refuse to budge. Those who ‘call out’ rarely understand two simple facts: the people they are ‘calling out’ may not be able to act quickly and they feel that they are being attacked.

There is no assumption of ‘good faith’ any more. Personally, I think that has been disastrous.


A person can claim to be offended by anything. But I don’t have to agree with them. Nor do I have to agree with their methods – indeed, I’m more likely to dismiss someone’s complaints if I find their methods to be unjustified. (The ends do just justify the means: the means make the ends.) A reasonable debate, with both sides putting forward points and counting the other side’s points, might bring out the truth. It might also convince people on one side that the people on the other are not monsters (and vice versa). The rule of law operates on a principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ But this is not how the ‘offended’ operate. To them, a target is ‘guilty until proven guilty,’ with a side helping of ‘everything you say will be taken down, deprived of all context, warped out of all recognition and used against you.’

And it makes it very hard to take them seriously.

Hanlon’s razor states, among other things, “don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.” This is the sort of courtesy that should be extended to everyone in the microaggression era. But it is not. There might have been a point to the original wave of ‘trigger warnings’ when they first appeared, but that point was rapidly buried under a mountain of nonsense. If you claim to be triggered by a book, someone else has the right to ask – in a rational world – why you were reading the book. And if you’re scared of dogs, yet want to go on a pet-breeding course … what in the world gives you the right to demand that dogs be removed from the curriculum?

And what makes you think that you have the right to attack someone repeatedly because you don’t like their work?

Authors make mistakes. I’ve had points where I’ve written things that people – reasonable people – would find offensive. And yes, there have been times when a beta-reader has told me that and I was annoyed, because I didn’t mean to be offensive and I felt that any reasonable reader would understand. But that doesn’t mean I have to put up with personal attacks because someone didn’t like one of my characters. There is, quite simply, nothing to be gained from engaging in a debate over such a matter. A person who refuses to believe that I – or anyone – write in good faith cannot be engaged in rational debate.

You prove someone wrong calmly and reasonably. In some cases, you do it yourself and you do it better. I would be happy to read an ‘American Wizarding School’ story written by one of Rowling’s critics. In others, you construct a case that stands up to scrutiny when the hysteria dies away. And you don’t automatically presume malice where none exists. If you assume that anyone who disagrees with you is the enemy, you’ll very soon discover that you are right.

I’d like to finish this short essay with an observation.

If I go to a convention and accidentally stand on someone’s foot in the elevator, I’m going to say sorry. Why? Because it’s the decent thing to do. But the manners I was taught, as a child, say that an apology is the end of the matter. I was at fault, I apologised; that is the end of the affair.

If that person decides to act as though he or she believes that I deliberately trod on their foot – screaming, complaining, harassing me – I’m going to run out of sympathy very quickly. I know it was an accident. My apology was not a de facto confession of heinous guilt. (I read an article in which businesses were encouraged not to apologise, even when it was the decent thing to do, because it is sometimes taken as a confession.) And the more they go on about it, the less inclined I’ll be to take them seriously. Sympathy has its limits. It can run dry.

And if that person claims that I somehow inflicted horrendous damage and they are crippled for life? And that I should shell out enough money (if I even have it) to make them independently wealthy for life?

I’m going to want some pretty solid proof before I pay a penny.

Critics and Credibility

10 Aug

Consider, if you will, the following quote:

The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive, book I’ve ever read.”

It is, I will agree, a dramatic statement. But it also suggests a certain lack of credibility on the part of the reviewer.

Credibility? Yes. The statement calls the book ‘dangerous,’ ‘offensive’ and insists that it is the most dangerous and offensive book the reviewer has ever read. This suggests that the reviewer is either using comically-exaggerated hyperbole or simply hasn’t read many books in their life. Neither one gives the reviewer much credit. To claim that The Black Witch is more offensive, let alone dangerous, than either The Turner Diaries or Time Slave – to pick the first two examples that came out of a life spent reading books – or that the heroine is the worst protagonist in existence is to suggest a very limited reading sphere.

I have read the first third of The Black Witch. I stopped reading for various reasons I will probably get into, if I decide to finish the book and then write a review. But I can say, in all honesty, that The Black Witch is nowhere near as thoroughly unpleasant as either of the two books I mentioned. I’m sure that my readership is wide enough that plenty of my readers can name a handful of even worse books, if they wish. Compared to some howlers I’ve read – even ones by people who share some of my political views – The Black Witch is very small beer.

To review a book – and I speak as a reader, a reviewer and a writer – requires a firm grasp of two skills: comprehension and contextualisation. The review must understand what the author is actually saying and place it in context. A book set in 1860s America, for example, would probably include a number of uses of the N-word, as well as social attitudes that we find disgraceful today. Should the author be penalised for this? No, because such words and usages make sense in context. And it is difficult to make it clear that the social attitudes are wrong because the people of that age didn’t necessarily consider them wrong. Objectively, a slaveholder might be the bad guy; subjectively, he isn’t going to see anything wrong with keeping slaves.

The Black Witch’s heroine was raised to consider herself part of the ‘master race,’ which is – let’s face it – a fairly common delusion. She was taught a number of ‘truths’ that, when she discovered the outside world, rapidly proved to be anything but. Such a discovery is not uncommon in human history. It is easy to think of a particular group of people as one vast faceless mass if one does not actually know someone who belongs to that group. There are no shortage of absurd stereotypes that blossom in the darkness of ignorance. A person can be as intelligent as one could wish – and part of the reason I stopped reading was that the heroine struck me as stupid – yet draw wrong conclusions from false data.

In context, this makes sense. And a story showing a character’s slow passage from ignorance-fuelled racism to being ‘woke’ – if I may be pardoned for using such a term – would have to start in a place that, to us, seems uncomfortable or disgusting.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the author, even though I didn’t finish her book. Not yet, anyway. This is partly because I faced the same problem myself, when I was writing the Twilight of the Gods series. Gudrun – the heroine – was born and raised in Nazi Germany and educated by genuine Nazis. She absorbed social attitudes that would have made her profoundly unsympathetic, if I had chosen to dwell on them. And while she was smart enough to realise some of the problems with her society, she was not spurred to challenge it until she was confronted with something she couldn’t ignore. Before then, she lacked the context to understand the full evil of the regime.

It isn’t uncommon for reviewers to dislike a book. I’ve read plenty of novels I didn’t like. I could give a full list of things I dread to find in a book, tropes and patterns that lead to me discarding the book by throwing it out the nearest window (which is a little harder to do with an eReader.) I cannot fault the reviewer for disliking the book, although I do question the value of writing over 8000 words in a review which is really nothing more than a list of quotes and suchlike the reviewer found problematic. If the book is that bad, there is really nothing to be gained by taking so much time and trouble over reviewing it. I honestly don’t think I have ever wasted quite so much time writing a bad review. I don’t think I’m the only one who wondered if outrage was the true motive here.

And part of the reason I wonder that is because of what happened next.

The reviewer started a campaign to boycott the book. She urged others to write bad reviews – when the book had barely come out – and demand that the publisher pull it from the shelves without delay. This would have been bad enough, but others started slandering the author, accusing her of being everything from a racist to a sexist (and worse.) The campaign died down rapidly, once the book was actually launched – and Amazon cracked down on non-verified reviews – but a great deal of damage was done.

This affair has resurfaced. And it serves as a grim reminder of just how toxic social justice bully politics can become.

There is no shortage of books that feature ‘problematic’ characters and situations. Harry Turtledove, for example, has written books featuring a surviving Third Reich. Does this mean that Turtledove, a Jew, is a Nazi-sympathiser? John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire has a female aristocrat who is effectively a rapist. Does this say anything nasty about John Scalzi? SM Stirling’s Draka books focus on the terrifyingly-effective Draka bringing the entire world under the yoke and turning everyone they consider inferior into slaves. Does this imply that Stirling would want to live in such a world? Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold turned the racial balance of power upside down. Does that imply that Heinlein was prejudiced against whites? Is Naomi Alderman problematic because The Power turns women into monsters? Is …?

I could go on for hours, listing problematic books. But it would be pointless. It wouldn’t be that hard to come up with reasons to declare every book in the world ‘problematic.’ An author who presents a bad situation, or creates a character who is flawed, or doesn’t tick every last diversity checkbox, isn’t necessarily a bad person. And people who assume that they are – particularly when the character’s journey serves as a refutation of racist concepts – come across as bullies. The hysterical screeching makes it impossible to take the reviewers seriously.

The problem with social justice bullies is that they believe they can make problems go away by preventing people from talking about them. This is absurd. The real world is that which doesn’t go away when you cover your eyes and sing loudly to drown out everyone else. At best, everyone else feels bitter resentment, contempt and hatred – a hatred that will eventually explode into violence. At worst, you get blindsided by something your beliefs refuse to let you even consider a possible threat (like the people you regard as victims turning out to be victimisers instead). Just because someone got the short end of the stick, once upon a time, doesn’t automatically mean they are (or were) the good guys.

Fiction allows us to talk about social problems and work our way through them. Fiction can teach us that the ‘other’ is actually human, as well as many other important life lessons. But this can only work if the writers are allowed to write and the critics are allowed to criticise … calmly, reasonably and without hurling insults at the writers. Pointing and shrieking has its limits, when reviews are concerned. A reviewer who cannot put together a coherent explanation of what they didn’t like about a book – and one who missed the fundamental point – is a reviewer who lacks credibility.

Saying that one didn’t like a book is fine. No author in his right mind expects everyone to love his book. Bad reviews are an occupational hazard. But actively sabotaging the author is disgusting, despicable and nothing more than outright bullying. It makes everyone involved look like thugs. And all it does is make fandom more and more toxic, which isn’t good for its long-term health.

Snippet–The Zero Curse

10 Aug

Zero Curse Final Cover R2 FOR WEB


It was a hot summer day when I realised – for the first time – just how vulnerable I truly was.

I was ten at the time and, despite everything, I hadn’t given up hope that I might have a spark of magic. It wasn’t uncommon for magicians not to show much – if any – spark and tar before turning twelve, when they would be schooled in magic. Or so my parents kept telling me, as they tried to teach me more and more arcane disciplines in the hopes of shaking something loose. My sisters were streaking ahead and I …

… I hadn’t even managed to cast a single spell.

It was a hot month, the hottest on record. My sisters and I would have loved to spend it in the swimming pool or paddling near the beach. Our friends – Alana and Bella’s friends, more accurately – had already decamped, leaving Shallot for their country estates where it would be cooler. We wanted to go with them too, but we hadn’t been allowed to leave. Great Aunt Stregheria had come to stay.

I still find it hard to believe that Great Aunt Stregheria was my father’s aunt. She was a tall dark woman, the tallest I’ve ever seen, her hair hanging down in a long braid that signified she was an unmarried woman. It was easy to understand why. I couldn’t help thinking that she looked rather like a vulture, with an angular face and dark eyes that seemed to glitter with malice as she peered down at us from her lofty height. She was one of those unpleasant adults who firmly believed that children should neither be seen nor heard and she hadn’t been shy about making her opinions known. She’d been scathing about my failings in magic. And she’d drilled my sisters in basic manners until even Alana was sick of her.

I didn’t know why she bothered to visit us. I still don’t. She complained about everything, from the food to the heat. We were in trouble if we didn’t curtsey just right when she saw us and when we deliberately stayed out of her way. She expected us to wear our formal clothes at all times, even though it was far too hot; she expected to wait on her at table, as if we were common maids. She’d get up late, have a long breakfast and then spend an hour or two with Dad before … well, we didn’t know what she was doing. We didn’t really care either. We just wanted her gone.

One day, the hottest day of the summer, we managed to slip away early. Mum didn’t say anything to us, let alone drag us back into the house. By then, I think she was sick and tired of Great Aunt Stregheria making itself at home. She had a home of her own. I rather thought it was a cave somewhere high up the mountainside, but I doubted it. Why couldn’t she go back home and stop bothering us? Great Aunt Stregheria was the sort of person who gave magic-users a bad name.

There was a little marshy pond down by the grove, one we’d paddled in when we were younger. We thought it was just far enough from the house – while still being part of the grounds – to escape detection, at least for a while. Dad hadn’t given Great Aunt Stregheria any access to the wards, we thought. She’d have been summoning us all the time if she’d had control. We took off our expensive shoes and splashed through the water, enjoying the cool liquid against our feet. For once, even Alana was too relieved to be away from the witch to indulge in a little malice. We were, just for an hour or two, a normal trio of sisters.

It didn’t last, of course.

Great Aunt Stregheria came striding through the grove in high dungeon, her face twisted with rage. I don’t think she was mad at us, specifically, but she was mad. We froze, fear holding us in place as solidly as any spell, as she stamped towards us. I had no idea where she’d been, or what she’d been doing, but …

“You little brats,” she snapped. In hindsight, I suspect she wanted to take her anger out on someone. “Get out of there!”

Normally, we would have obeyed instantly. But we were hot and sweaty and very – very – tired of her. We didn’t move.

Great Aunt Stregheria lifted her hand and cast a spell. I saw a flash of brilliant greenish light, an instant before the spell stuck me – struck us. Alana screamed – I might have screamed too, I’m not sure – as magic flared around her. My skin tingled unpleasantly, as if I was caught in a thunderstorm. I had an instant to see my black hand turning green and warty before the world shrunk. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut as I splashed into the water, then jerked them open as my legs started to move automatically. The tiny pool – so shallow that it barely reached our knees – was suddenly huge.

I broke the water, just in time to see Alana and Bella become frogs. My head swam as I grappled with the sudden change. It wasn’t the first time I’d been transfigured, but … but … this was far worse. There were no safeties worked into the spell. I could feel the frog’s mind gnawing away at mine, threading to erode my thoughts. The water was practically hypnotic, pulling at me. If I hadn’t been panicking, if I hadn’t managed to hop out of the water, I might have been lost.

The spell on me wore off in an hour, although it wasn’t until two years later that I understood why. By then, Dad had literally thrown Great Aunt Stregheria out of the hall and ordered her never to return. The spell on my sisters lasted nearly a week before it finally collapsed. Dad was delighted, utterly over the moon. He insisted I had a definite magical talent. I had to have something, he reasoned, to escape such a complex spell. Our parents had been unable to unravel it for themselves.

I knew better. Alana and Bella had been trapped, but neither of them had been in any danger of losing themselves in an animal’s mind. Their magic had even fought the spell when it was first cast. But I had no magic to defend myself. The protective spells Mum and Dad had laid on me had never been anchored properly because there was nothing for them to anchor to. It was sheer luck that I’d survived long enough for the spell to unravel. I was defenceless. Anyone could cast a spell on me.

It was a lesson I should never have forgotten.

I was a zero. And being powerless was my curse.

Chapter One

The workbench was ugly.

It had been made of dark brown almond-tree wood, once upon a time. It would have gleamed under the light, when it was new; now, it was covered in burn marks and scratches and pieces of mismatched wood where its previous owner had replaced broken drawers and covering with newer material. Half the drawers were tight, so tight that opening them was a struggle; the remainder were so loose that I felt I’d have to replace them sooner rather than later. And I’d found five secret compartments, concealed by careful design rather than magic, one of which had been crammed with gold coins from a bygone era.

It was ugly. But it was mine and I loved it.

The workbench had been in the family for centuries, according to my father. It had belonged to Anna the Artificer, once upon a time, before it had gone into storage after her death. Her children hadn’t had the heart to use it for themselves, apparently. None of them had come close to matching their mother when it came to forging talent. If there hadn’t been stories of her fighting a duel with a prospective suitor, I’d have wondered if she’d been a Zero. There were no stories about her forging Objects of Power – at least, none that had been passed down the ages – but some of her Devices of Power had lasted nearly a decade without maintenance and repair. Very few forgers could make that claim.

Dad had given me the workbench, along with a workroom and suite of my very own. He’d said that I was the first person in centuries to live up to Anna’s legacy, the first person to deserve to sit at her workbench and forge. Personally, I thought he felt a little guilty. My sisters – Alana and Belladonna – had long-since had their rooms decorated, to mark their progress in magic, but I’d never managed to cast even the simplest of spells. Until recently, everyone had assumed that I was either a very slow learner or a freak. And I was a freak.

Just a very valuable freak, I thought.

The thought made me smile. It was good to be appreciated, to be something more than my family’s private shame. I still didn’t understand why I could forge Objects of Power – where everyone else was limited to Devices of Power – but it gave me a talent none of my sisters could match. Alana had never been a good forger – Bella had been too lazy to learn more than the basics and only then because Dad had pushed her nose to the grindstone – yet it wouldn’t have mattered if she spent every waking hour at the workbench. I was the only person who could forge Objects of Power.

“I can still turn you into a toad,” Alana had said, last night. She’d come home from school, along with Bella. “And you can’t do that to me without help, can you?”

“No,” I’d said. My sister was a spiteful person, now more than ever. I was careful to wear protective trinkets every time I saw her. “But anyone can turn me into a toad.”

I leaned back and surveyed my new domain. Dad hadn’t skimped on outfitting the chamber, either. Two walls were lined with bookcases, heaving under the weight of reference textbooks and a small collection of reprinted volumes from the Thousand-Year Empire. I wasn’t the only one who could read them – I’d had Old Script drilled into my head before I’d reached my first decade – but I was the only one who could make use of them. The instructions for making Objects of Power were easy to find, if one had access to a decent library, yet something had been left unsaid. It had been sheer luck that I’d realised that the missing ingredient, something so obvious the ancient magicians had never bothered to write it down, had been someone like me. Maybe I couldn’t use magic personally. It didn’t make me useless.

A second workbench, covered with handmade tools, sat near the door, next to a furnace, a kiln, a set of cupboards and a giant translucent cauldron. Dad had crammed one of the cupboards with everything a budding forger would want, while Mum had filled the other with potion ingredients. I hated to think how much it must have cost, even though I knew my family was rich and that my sisters had earned rewards for themselves, over the years. Being best friends with a commoner had taught me more than anyone had realised. I was almost embarrassed at the thought of bringing Rose into my workroom. A single gemstone – like the ones hidden in one of my drawers – would be more than enough to buy and sell her entire family.

I put the thought aside as I carefully pulled on a set of protective robes, tied my hair into a tight bun and inspected myself in the mirror. My dark face was marred by a nasty burn from when I’d managed to splash hot potion on myself, although it was healing nicely. I had a nasty feeling that I’d have forger’s hands – hands covered in burn marks – by the time I was twenty, even though my tutors had drummed safety precautions into me from the very beginning. It wasn’t something that bothered me, although Alana had made snide remarks about me not having ladylike hands. It was proof that I was more than just another aristocratic brat entering High Society.

Not that High Society ever really cared about me, I thought.

It was a grim thought. I’d gone to birthday parties, of course, doing the social whirl that ensured that everyone who was anyone in Shallot knew everyone else. But birthday parties for young magicians had been hazardous for me, all the more so as rumours about my magic – or lack of it – had started to spread. Very few people had grasped that I had no magic whatsoever, but it was clear that I was a very late bloomer. No one had wanted to be associated with me, for fear that whatever had laid me low might be catching. I’d had no true friends until I’d gone to Jude’s. Now …

I swallowed, hard. I wasn’t looking forward to going back to school, even though I’d declined when Dad had offered to let me stay home. Rose was there, after all. I couldn’t leave her alone, not after everything she’d done for me. And maybe things would be better, now I’d beaten Isabella. The school’s honour code was strict. Isabella had been beaten fairly and that was all that mattered. Unless she reasoned she hadn’t been beaten fairly, after all. It wasn’t an unarguable case.

One by one, I removed the protective amulets and earrings I’d forged over the last couple of weeks, placing them on the small table by the mirror. I felt as if I was naked, utterly unprotected, when I was done, even though the workroom was locked. I’d spent the last six years trying – and often failing – to avoid increasingly nasty pranks from my sisters, pranks that I’d never been able to see coming. Even something as simple as sitting down to dinner could turn into a trial if Alana had had time to hex or jinx the chair. Now … I was protected, as long as I wore the earrings. But I didn’t know if I could wear them while forging without ruining my work.

Buttoning up my robe, I strode across to the workbench and looked down at the longsword, resting in a web of silver netting. It was big, easily too big for me to carry, even using both hands. I wasn’t exactly a weakling – forging requires physical strength as well as dexterity – but it was still too big for me. Sir Griffons, the man who’d commissioned the sword, was easily twice my size. He had muscles on his muscles … and yet, normally, even he would have trouble carrying the sword. I couldn’t help thinking that a Kingsman – a servant of His Most Regal Majesty, King Rufus – wouldn’t consider the longsword a practical weapon. But it did have its advantages.

I smiled as I studied the blade, carefully planning out the next step. Casting the blade itself had been simple, a task that anyone could do. Dad had even offered to have one of his apprentices do it for me, pointing out that I didn’t have to waste my time on it. And yet, I’d declined. There was too great a chance that someone else’s involvement would taint the magic, making it impossible to turn the long sword into an Object of Power. I intended to experiment, once I returned to school, to see just how much I could pass to someone else without ruining the work.

And besides, I wanted to impress Sir Griffons.

The swordsmen of the Thousand-Year Empire had had swords that could cut through anything, according to legend. Their blades had been as light as feathers, in the hands of their true owners; their scabbards had had magic of their own, healing wounds and boosting strength when swordsmen met in combat. And there had been some truth in the legends. I’d seen blades, passed down through the years, that had been magic, when wielded by the descendents of the original owners. My Family Sword, buried in the Family Hearthstone, had powers of its own. You simply couldn’t buy a weapon like that for love or money. Even if a family sold off a priceless heirloom – which would have forced them to put a price on ‘priceless’ – the magic wouldn’t work for anyone outside the direct line. Whatever rites and rituals had been used to transfer a blade to a new owner had been lost hundreds of years ago.

Sir Griffons had been obsessed with owning such a sword for as long as I’d been alive. He’d been pushing my father to either crack the secret behind the blades or come up with something new, something that would allow a Device of Power to survive against counterspells. Every year, Dad had tried something new; every year, the blade had either snapped in combat or lost its magic at terrifying speed. Dad and his apprentices had gone through the books hundreds of times, trying dozens of variations in a desperate bid to crack the secret. They’d known the reward would be massive, if they succeeded. The Kingsmen needed such blades to do their work. But they’d failed. The problem had seemed insurmountable.

I reached for my notebook and opened it, checking my work one final time. The calculations hadn’t been that difficult, although I’d had to adapt some of the runes to adjust for modern-day materials. Whoever had come up with the original swords had been a genius, as well as a Zero. The network of runes that channelled magic into the blade had to be precise or the spell would simply refuse to work. Thankfully, I’d learnt the value of precision long ago. My sisters had enough power to compensate for deviations – often very big deviations – from perfect spellforms, but lesser magicians needed to be precise. Not that it mattered to me, in any case. I could speak a spell perfectly, with all the accent on the right syllables, and nothing would happen.

And yet, I can forge Objects of Power, I reminded myself, as I picked up the etching tool and held it over the sword. I am unique.

I’d forged the etching tool myself, as tradition demanded. I wasn’t too sure if it mattered – the harmony most magicians experienced when they used tools they’d crafted themselves was alien to me – but it wasn’t a tradition I wanted to abandon. Forging had given me a sense of purpose, of achievement, a long time before I’d realised what I could do. And besides, it kept my mind off uncomfortable truths. There were things I didn’t want to think about, even now.

Bending over the sword, I carefully pressed the etching tool against the metal and carved out the first rune. The metal was softer than it should have been – the silver cradle made it easier to carve, although I didn’t pretend to understand why – but I still moved with immense care. I didn’t have time to start again from scratch, not when I was due back at school in a couple of days. Besides, I wasn’t sure what would happen if I melted down the sword to reuse the metal. In theory, it shouldn’t make any difference; in practice, I wasn’t so sure. I’d seen forging go horribly wrong because the metal had already been tainted by magic.

The first rune fell into place, neatly. I took a moment to catch my breath – sweat was already trickling down my back – and then started on the second. My calculations insisted that the magic wouldn’t take effect until the last rune was in place, but I kept a wary eye on the blade anyway, just in case. A surge of magic that seemingly came out of nowhere would be dangerous, not least because I couldn’t sense the surge and take cover until it was too late. As far as magic was concerned, I was the blind girl in the kingdom of the sighted.

My hands were aching by the time I’d worked my way through a dozen runes. I stepped backwards, taking a deep breath. Magicians who forged Devices of Power claimed that the work couldn’t be paused, once it was underway, but I’d never had a problem when I’d forged Objects of Power. I rather suspected that my lack of magic actually kept the runes from activating early, too early to let the spellforms take shape properly. It was something else I intended to test, when I had a moment. Rose and I would have a lot of fun testing the limits of my abilities.

And then the lanterns dimmed, just slightly.

I tensed. Someone was outside the main door … no, someone was trying to use magic to open the main door. It couldn’t be my parents. Mum was in the garden, picking herbs for a potion she wanted to try; Dad was playing host to our very unwelcome guest. And besides, they would have knocked – loudly – if they’d wanted to come in. Very few people would enter a magician’s workroom without permission. The servants certainly wouldn’t dare. My list of suspects was very short indeed.

Alana, I thought.

I slipped back to the mirror, moving as quietly as I could. I’d had far too much practice in sneaking around over the years, although it wasn’t as much use as I’d hoped. Even a relatively young magician like my sister could cast wards to protect her belongings. Picking up one of the earrings, I cupped it in my hand and walked to the other workbench as I heard the sound of someone opening the door. It was very quiet, so quiet that I knew the intruder meant trouble. There’s nothing quite so alarming as the sound of someone doing everything in their power not to be heard. Alana must have assumed that her silencing spell had actually worked. It had, but the runes I’d carved into the door had drawn on the magic to dim the lanterns, then cancelled the spell.

Good thing she didn’t cast the spell on herself, I thought, as I kept the earring pressed against my skin. It shouldn’t make a difference, according to the books, as long as it was touching me. She might have noticed that the spell had failed if she’d intended to ensure that she couldn’t hear either.

I kept my back to the door as stealthy footsteps echoed down the tiny corridor, even though I wanted to turn – or run. I had too many bad memories of being hexed to feel calm when my sister was behind me. Alana had to be annoyed about something. Our parents had told her, in no uncertain terms, not to use magic anywhere near my workroom. Even Alana would have hesitated, normally, to defy Dad. He wasn’t the sort of person anyone defied twice.

“Freeze,” Alana said.

I felt the earring grow warm in my hand, tingling just for a second. Alana made a sound that cut off so sharply that it made me jump. I turned, slowly. Alana was standing there, utterly unmoving. A surprised expression dominated her frozen face. I walked towards her slowly, wondering just how long she’d intended to freeze me. She knew – now – that spells simply didn’t cling to me for long. It was very possible that she’d never bothered to calculate just how long her spell should have left me frozen.

And spells do cling to her, I thought, feeling a flash of vindictive glee. Alana was a powerful and skilled magician, for her age, but I didn’t think she could unfreeze herself without being able to move her hands. Even an upperclassman would have problems. She might have trapped herself until midnight.

“That was stupid,” I said, doing my best to imitate the tone my mother used when she was reprimanding us for being foolish. “Using magic in here? You could have triggered an explosion.”

That wasn’t true, I thought. But as long as she believed it was true …

I walked around behind her, wrapped my arms around her chest and picked her up. It wasn’t easy. Alana was lighter than me, I thought – she was certainly skinny – but she was as stiff and unmoving as a board. I half-carried, half-dragged her out of the workroom door, down the corridor and through the door into the main house. It was quiet, too quiet. I glanced in either direction, then manhandled Alana into the nearest cupboard and closed the door. She’d be stuck there until someone found her or the spell wore off.

Or if she manages to free herself, I thought. My sister had always been an overachiever when it came to magic. She might just make it.

I shrugged as I turned and walked back to the workroom. It was much more likely that she’d be discovered by one of the maids. They’d been working overtime, the last few days. I rather suspected that whoever found Alana would be tempted to leave her, but the maids would be reluctant to risk being fired. Alana was a vindictive person at the best of times.

And she left me in a cupboard too, hundreds of times, I thought. Perhaps I should have felt guilty. But I didn’t. She did far worse to me.

I sighed as I stepped through the door. I had work to finish before dinnertime. My parents would let me work until the wee small hours, if I wanted, but I knew I wouldn’t be in the mood. I knew it. Our family has the best chef in Shallot, but I wasn’t looking forward to dinner.

Great Aunt Stregheria was coming to tea.

More Updates …

2 Aug

Hi, everyone

I spent the last few hours today inserting all the edits, fixing plot holes, etc for The Gordian Knot. (Much credit to my beta-readers, who pointed out everything from continuity glitches to authorial stupidity.) The current planned publication date is October 15th, but I’m hopeful that we’ll get a cover and the editing done sooner. We shall see.

My planned writing schedule hasn’t really changed. I’m going to write The Zero Curse next, barring accidents. This will be followed by Graduation Day (SIM14) and The Cruel Stars (Ark 11). For various reasons, my post-December schedule is impossible to predict at the moment.

Zero Cursed Cover Revised FOR WEB

That said, I have been working on several ideas for new stories and universes:

One is basically a spin-off from the Zero universe, a stand-alone set in the lower levels of society. I have a workable plot, I think. I just have to write it.

Another is pretty much an odd heist story, set in an alternate French Revolution (provisional title – The Unkindest Cut). There may be some elements of magic involved – or a background where magic existed, even if it doesn’t now – which keeps it from being a straight alternate history or historical novel. It’s something that I’ve been mulling over for a while. But really … I’m having problems sorting out the magic, if there is magic.

Another is a story where someone from an alternate world contacts ours – and buys weapons, hires mercenaries (etc) to overthrow a despot. Or something along those lines – I have the first section planned in my head, but I’m not sure how it will actually develop.

And then there’s an urban fantasy story where magic was revealed ten years ago, leading to a major crisis … well, I can’t say much about it yet. But it will be complex and involve little romance.

I’ve actually had fewer SF ideas and concepts over the past couple of months. I do have a plan for a fourth Ark Royal trilogy, but so far I haven’t been able to flesh it out that much. I also have a time travel story that is probably too close to the ‘carrier goes back in time’ story unless I find a way to put a new take on it. And while I have been working on the ‘Social War’ storyline, it isn’t solid yet.

And I also need to start solidifying books 5+6 of A Learning Experience and book 15 of The Empire’s Corps.

Which ones would you like to see?

Emily, Grey and the Duel

2 Aug

Following on from my previous post …

The Duelling League lists its duellists in a system that Emily (not being a sportswoman) finds a little silly. Basically, the top duellist is number one, with everyone else ranked in order; a challenger who wins a duel essentially swaps places with the loser. If Bob20 beats Alice10, Bob becomes Bob10 and Alice becomes Alice20. The duellists at the very top of the table – like Master Grey – aren’t that far advanced over their fellows. Master Grey was in the lead, but he didn’t have that great a lead. (And that doesn’t include magicians who don’t take part in duelling contests, who may be better.)

A senior duellist is not, by the unwritten code, supposed to issue a challenge to anyone more than ten places below him. They are meant to challenge him. However, the challenged party does get to determine the terms of the duel – they can say, for example, that the duel is fought until one duellist is dead. Most challenges amongst the Duelling League are couched in vague terms because the challenger is trying to feel out the terms of the duel before committing himself, allowing him to back off if he feels he might get killed. There is, for example, no rule against Grey1 accepting a challenge from Casper 100. But Grey1 is quite within his rights to refuse the duel if Casper100 rejects his terms – i.e. a fight to the death – and no one would think any less of him for doing so.

A senior duellist may not refuse to respond, as long as they wish to remain in the Duelling League. Someone who wants to leave can do so at any moment, which moves anyone below him up a notch. However, this will look very bad if they try to withdraw when a challenge – or even an enquiry – has been issued.

Where points of honour are concerned – unlike sporting contests – matters aren’t that much more flexible. Someone high up the social and power scale could, in theory, challenge someone below them for an ‘offence’. It would be legal. But, on the other hand, it would make them look absurd. ‘Punching down’ is not considered a virtue in the Nameless World. A magician who challenges someone so far below them would both look like a bully – in picking a fight he is almost certain to win – and also give credence to whatever the offence actually was, as if the magician was trying to silence his opponent. To paraphrase a line from The Sandman, a fool can tell a magician that he’s wearing no clothes – but the magician is still a magician.

The challenged is not allowed to hire someone else to fight the duel for him. If the challenged doesn’t have magic, for example, he may stipulate that the duel be fought with swords, rather than spells. It is considered bad form to pick a weapon that one knows one’s opponent doesn’t know how to use, but it isn’t illegal.

Under certain circumstances, the challenged may offer a grovelling apology instead of a duel – if the challenger accepts it – and then try to make recompense. Under others, a duel is technically forbidden – if someone accuses someone else of a serious crime, the accused may not seek to silence his opponent through a duel. (Although, if proved innocent, he may seek revenge on the duelling ground.)

Anyway, back to Emily.

As far as the vast majority of the outside world is concerned, it was EMILY – not Grey – who issued the challenge. Grey spent a lot of time manipulating her to the point where she would say something careless because he could NOT issue the challenge himself – the Grandmaster would have vetoed it AND probably fired Grey (out a cannon). Even if Emily and Grey had met outside Whitehall (and he wasn’t one of her teachers), society would have raised eyebrows at Grey challenging her. It would have been viewed as dishonourable.

(That said, Emily killed two necromancers. The duel didn’t raise that many eyebrows because not everyone thought it was uneven.)

Grey, by rights, should have refused the challenge (as a tutor, he had that right) or specified a non-lethal duel. On the other hand, seeing he insisted that all challengers agree to a lethal duel as the price for challenging him, most outside observers would not have been too sympathetic to Emily if she’d protested on grounds of ignorance. They would point out – rightly, from their POV – that Emily was too stupid to check before issuing her challenge and, having made her bed, would have to die in it. They would also argue that someone who killed two necromancers is clearly NOT a helpless little girl, so the element of dishonour (for Grey) is much reduced.

The Grandmaster’s only legal recourse was to order the duel delayed and hope that something came up that would allow all parties to back off with honour reasonably satisfied. This obviously didn’t work <grin>.

Emily could have grovelled or run (as Lady Barb advised). In the case of the former, Master Grey would have had no obligation to accept … and, if he did, it would have made Emily look very bad. In the case of the latter, she would have been declared an outlaw, which would have dented her reputation and (probably) resulted in her death. Magical society – and much of the mundane aristocracy – would have shunned her. Worse, it would have confirmed the suspicions of everyone – including several necromancers – who believed that Emily’s power rested on a bluff.

Void could, in theory, have stepped in and bribed or threatened Grey into abandoning the duel. However, if he had done so, it would have destroyed Emily’s future credibility as an independent power in her own right (as well as a successor to Void) in the same way that helicopter parents undermine their adult children. Outside observers would have seen it as daddy stepping in to clean up the mess after his daughter’s mouth wrote a check she couldn’t cash. No one would blame him for being appalled at the situation, as any responsible father should be, but they wouldn’t see him having many options, save for allowing the duel to go ahead and hoping for the best. (Particularly as Emily does have a reputation for taking on actual necromancers and winning.)

In short, after the Grandmaster died, the best option as far as the Nameless World was concerned was to let the duel go ahead and hope for the best.