Archive | December, 2017

Happy New Year

31 Dec


It’s been an interesting year.

The most important thing, of course, was the birth of our second son John in November. He came out three weeks early, much to our surprise, but everything went smoothly and we were able to take him home the following day. It’s been a month already and he’s putting on weight at astonishing speed. He’s also louder than his brother was, at least for the first six months. I think he realises he has competition for our attention right from the start. (It must have been baby-month, as my nephew was born two days before John.)

Eric, now three, is doing well too, although I think he’s a little bemused by John’s appearance. We did try to explain that he was going to get a brother, but obviously he didn’t really understand what is happening. I think he expected someone the same age as himself, not a baby who sucks up most of mummy’s attention. He’s been acting out more over the last month or so, unsurprisingly. We’re doing our best to be patient with him.

I’ve learnt a great deal about parenting over the last three years. Some of the things I was told made no sense until I was actually a father myself. (And it’s harder, now, to pour scorn on helicopter parents.) Other things have not stood the test of actually having a baby. Trying to change nappies on a baby-sized doll, for example, was somewhat misleading – babies don’t bend that way. I’ve also discovered, as Eric fell in love with toy railways, that its often cheaper to buy stuff second-hand than new. I purchased three huge boxes of railway pieces and suchlike on EBay and we now have more than we know what to do with. (I ended up given some of it to my niece.) We also made the mistake, back in 2014, of purchasing a specialised baby table. It was largely useless right from the moment we actually tried to use it.

(And when I get asked for my words of wisdom by other new parents, I always say ‘buy wipes. Buy lots of wipes.’)

My writing career has been progressing well. I published The Zero Blessing in March and sales were good enough to justify writing and publishing The Zero Curse in September. It might have been a mistake to write three fantasy books in a row – I wrote The Gordian Knot on one side and Graduation Day on the other – but it seems to have worked out ok. I intend to write The Zero Equation and end the trilogy in mid-Jan 2018. I also brought out four Schooled in Magic books and yes, the series will continue next year. And I wrote The Hyperspace Trap – formerly known as Becalmed – which will be released in February. It’s a spin-off from the Angel in the Whirlwind series, but it adds a certain something to the universe.

On Kindle, I brought out six new books, including two Ark Royal books and one The Empire’s Corps book. I do intend to continue both series over the coming years. I’ve also continued turning books into audio and paperback editions. Unfortunately, this is a slower process than I – or some of my readers – would clearly prefer.

Overall, it has been a very busy year.

I hope you all had a merry Christmas – if you celebrate – have a very happy new year.

Christopher Nuttall

New Years Eve, 2017

Run, Run, As Fast As You Can …

31 Dec

Because you don’t want to be tricked like the gingerbread man!

I apologise for the doggerel, but there is a point here.

A couple of days ago, a friend of a friend posted a question to a writer’s group on Facebook. The good news was that he’d been offered a contract by a traditional publisher. The bad news was that that the publisher wanted him to pay in advance. The editing, marketing, and publishing would cost $350, they said; the contract stated that they wanted $395 as the first payment, then ten more payments of $295 every month regardless of the book’s actual status (published or not.)

I took one look and wrote a simple response. “Run, run, run!”

Greater writers than I have said this before, but it needs to be repeated time and time again. In traditional publishing, money flows downhill to the author. The publisher pays for editing, marketing and suchlike in advance (and then takes it out of earnings before they pay the author anything more than the advance). The author does not pay a single penny (or cent) to the publisher. Full stop.

Put bluntly, if the publisher expects you to pay in advance, they’re scammers.

Writers want to be published. We want to see our name in print. And that can make us suckers, ripe for exploitation. It is very easy to fall for the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy and keep shelling out cash, while the so-called publishers do nothing – or do it very poorly. Writers who get into these sort of messes often discover that the editing is sub-standard, the marketing consists of a handful of Facebook ads and the printing is terrible. Worse, they are often expected to buy huge print runs of their own books – which are then unsellable – or discover that their contracts entitles their publishers to first call on anything else they happen to write. Getting out of these contracts can be a nightmare.

Let me say it again. If the publisher expects you to pay in advance, they’re scammers. You are being scammed.

These companies do not make money by publishing books. They make money by exploiting hundreds of people like YOU, people who were so captivated by the idea of having their name in print that they didn’t recognise or heed the warning signs. Their whole business model is based around insisting you need services and then forcing you to pay for them. I know what it’s like to be an unpublished author, desperate to break into a hard market; I understand exactly how a newbie writer feels. But it is important to recognise that any newbie writer is a potential target for exploitation. A publisher who wants you to pay is not your friend.

Now, this obviously isn’t true of indie publishing. There, you buy services on contract – I hire editors and cover designers for my books. (I think the most expensive book I ever put out cost me around $1500.) But I also don’t have to split the proceeds with an agent or a publisher. Nor do I have to stick with a contractor whose services are not up to par.

If someone offers you a contract, do your due diligence. Check out Writer Beware and other online resources for writers. Read reviews of work your publisher has put out – not paid reviews, real reviews. Insist on reading the contract – perhaps even chatting with other authors (and make sure you find their contact details yourself) – before you do more than express interest. Perhaps even check out the free samples so you can see their editing for yourself.

If you get involved in a scam, it will cost you your book (and perhaps any future books) as well as your reputation. You do not want to look like a sucker. I’ve seen far too many authors shrilling for their scammers, all believing that a great payday is just around the corner. It’s an easy mistake to make, but you don’t want to make it.

So … warning signs.

If a publisher asks you to pay for having your book published, RUN.

If a publisher insists you sign a contract giving them complete and open-ended power over the book, and/or demands first refusal rights for anything else you might happen to write, RUN.

If a publisher asks you to pay for services (editing, cover design, etc), RUN.

If a publisher promises you the sun and the moon tomorrow, but never today, RUN.

If a publisher tells you that he isn’t one of those evil vanity publishers, RUN.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade. I understand the urge to get published and see your name in print. But it is important to remember that the urge makes you vulnerable and there are people out there who will try to exploit you. Do your research, keep a wary eye on anyone who claims to be your friend instead of taking a business-like approach and, for the love of God, learn from other experiences before you become the next cautionary tale for new writers.

Believe me, there are plenty of those out there already.

The Alchemist’s Apprentice Snippet

29 Dec

This is one of the planned successors to The Zero Enigma.  So far, it’s nothing more than a snippet, but comments would be welcome.


I was twelve when I was taken into service.

It was no real surprise to me, not really. My stepfather might have accepted me into his home, but he’d never really liked me. There was no way a half-Hangchowese girl could pass for his. My skin was pale enough to pass for a country girl, but my almond eyes – slanted, the crueller kids said – proved that my father had come from overseas. He’d made sure I was fed and educated – the law demanded no less – yet he wasn’t going to waste any of his money on me. I certainly didn’t have enough magical talent to win a scholarship. And so, as soon as I turned twelve, my mother wrapped my dark hair in braids, stood over me as I packed a bag with everything I’d need for a month and took me down to the Hiring Hall.

My mother … I wasn’t sure how my mother felt about me. I wasn’t even clear in the details of what had transpired between her and my father. She seemed to love me, yet … yet she hadn’t kept my stepfather from ordering me into service. Was I a reminder of something she’d prefer to forget? Or was I merely old enough to earn my keep? I’d been cooking and cleaning almost as soon as I’d learnt to walk, like every other girl-child born in South Shallot; I knew the basics of housekeeping better than many a grown woman. My mother had taught me well.

I couldn’t help feeling nervous as we stepped through the massive wooden door and looked around. Normally, a girl who went into domestic service would find a placement through friends and family, but neither was willing to go out on a limb for me. My stepfather certainly wasn’t going to waste his contacts ensuring I had a good placement in a decent home. That was reserved for my younger half-sisters, assuming they didn’t have talent of their own. And yet, the Hiring Hall wasn’t meant for young girls who wanted to go into domestic service. Most of the people who came in search of a job were men from the countryside.

My mother spoke briskly to the attendants, who gave me a necklace to prove I was in search of a job. They didn’t seem surprised to see me. I couldn’t have been the only youngster who’d passed through their doors. And yet, as my mother walked me around the hall, it looked as though I wasn’t going to get a placement. I was too young for some placements, too weak or inexperienced for others … I’d never realised how limited my experience truly was until I needed a job. The Great Houses, who might have trained me, never hired through the Hiring Hall. They hired through family connections.

And then I saw Master Travis for the very first time.

He looked old to me; his chocolate-coloured face marred with the scars of a hundred potions explosions, his tattered brown robes covered with burn marks and marked with alchemical symbols I didn’t understand until much later. His gait suggested that he was constantly on the verge of falling down. He was, as he walked over to us, more than a little frightening. But he was also the only person who’d approached us.

“I need a shopgirl,” he said, bluntly. His accent was pure Shallot. I later learnt that he was a certain family’s natural-born son. “One who can read and write.”

“I can read and write,” I assured him, quickly. I could too, although not as well as he might have wished. My education hadn’t been that extensive. I certainly hadn’t done well enough to earn the chance to study for the financial or legal guilds. “And I can serve customers too.”

My mother leaned forward and started to haggle. My stepfather – damn the man – had insisted that I find employment in a place that gave me lodgings, even if I had to sleep on the cold stone floor. Master Travis haggled back, although without the intensity I’d expected from someone who’d grown up in Shallot. We’re a trading city. Children learn to bargain before they reach their second decade. By the time she’d finished, darkness was falling over the city and I had a job. Master Travis had even agreed to teach me some basic potions in exchange for a slightly reduced salary. My mother had been insistent. A young woman who could brew would have excellent marriage prospects, as long as she didn’t set her sights too high. It might just be enough to make up for my absent – and unknown – father.

“Come,” Master Travis said, once the contract was signed. I was his now, at least until I turned eighteen. “We have to go.”

The sheer enormity of what I’d done crashed down on me as I bid farewell to my mother and turned to follow him. I might go back to my stepfather’s house for visits – and Master Travis had agreed to give me one day off per week – but I didn’t live there any longer. Master Travis’s shop would be my home for the next six years. My heart was pounding like a drum as we walked out of the hall and down the darkening streets. Master Travis walked with the utter confidence of a man who knew no one would get in his way. I wished I felt so confident. There were parts of the city my mother had told me never to visit in darkness.

It felt as though we walked for hours before we crossed the bridge to Water Shallot and turned down a cobbled street. The city was darker here, bands of sailors and tradesmen hanging around bars or roaming the streets in search of entertainment. Most of the shops were closed, their doors covered with protective runes. I stayed close to my new master as he stopped outside a darkened shop and pressed his hand against the doorknob. It opened a second later, revealing a vast collection of alchemical ingredients. I couldn’t help thinking of a sweetshop. And yet, the air smelled of herbs rather than sugar.

Master Travis lit the lanterns with a single spell. I could see why he needed a shopgirl. The counter was relatively clean – and the jars of herbs were properly sealed – but there was dust and grime everywhere else. Something tickled the back of my throat as I looked around. And yet, I was afraid to cough for fear I might set off a storm of dust.

“You’ll sleep in the garret,” Master Travis said, pointing to a narrow staircase leading up into the darkness. His voice was gruff, but I saw genuine concern on his face. “Do you need something to eat?”

I hesitated – my stepfather might have fed me, yet he’d never bothered to hide that the only reason he was taking care of me was because the law insisted – but then my stomach rumbled loudly. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and that had been hours ago.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Take your bag upstairs,” Master Travis said. “And then come down and we’ll get something to eat.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, again.

He offered me a lantern. I took it and walked slowly up the stairs. The building felt cramped, as if it was an oversized dollhouse rather than a real house. I later discovered that it had been fitted into the gap between two apartment blocks. The garret, at the top of the stairs, was dark and tiny. I was a small girl, for my age, and it still felt as if I’d bang my head on the roof if I stood up too quickly. There was dust everywhere. The bed and chair looked as if they’d been designed for children, not adults. I wasn’t sure where I was meant to put my clothes.

But it was private, I told myself. It was certainly better than the room I’d shared with my half-sisters. We’d practically lived in each other’s clothes.

I put my bag on the bed and walked back downstairs. I’d been sent away from home, and I’d be lucky if I saw my mother more than once or twice a month, but there were advantages. I’d be away from my stepfather, I’d be earning money … I might even be learning a new trade I could use to support myself. Perhaps, just perhaps, going into service wouldn’t be so bad after all.

And it wasn’t.

The Zero Equation–Snippet II

28 Dec

Not sure if I’ll go with this.  But it was running through my head.

Prologue II

The night I returned to the school, after the kidnap and our escape, I dreamed of the dragons.

Not the nasty beasts that inhabit the Desolation, the dull creatures we hunt for potions and alchemical supplies, but the Great Drakes of legend. Giant golden creatures, their wings shining in the sun as they flew. I dreamed I flew beside them, sharing the ancient wisdom in their eyes. I knew I was dreaming. And yet, it felt so real.

I could see more than just dragons. I could see castles built of clouds and giant floating cities, so large that they plunged the land below into permanent darkness. I could see huge buildings reaching up to the skies, great machines glowing with power as they transformed the land. I could see giants and genies and sprites and elementals and so many other legendary creatures; I could see magicians, flying through the air as if they were light as birds. Wizards walked through the clouds, taking their ease; witches rode on brooms, laughing as they soared above the clouds.

And I could see the magic.

I’d often dreamed of having magic – and then awakened to stare down at my powerless fingers – but this was different. The magic pulsed like a living thing, wrapping the entire world in its embrace. Colourless light seemed to shimmer around me – around everyone, giving them power. It looked as if it would last forever …

And then it was gone.

The genies and elementals winked out, as if someone had blown out a candle. They were gone before I quite realised what had happened. And then everyone – everything – was falling. The cloud-buildings dissolved into mist, their occupants falling to the ground far below; the flying cities plummeted, hitting the ground with terrifying force. Flying witches and wizards screamed as they fell, roaring and chanting spells in a desperate – and futile – attempt to save their lives. The magic was gone.

I saw it all. The giants, suddenly collapsing under their own weight; the great machines, flickering and failing. The population panicking, looking around in numb horror, utterly unable to comprehend what had happened. The most powerful amongst them, the ones who had lived amongst the clouds, were already dead. And none of the survivors knew how to live without magic. They couldn’t do anything without magic. I floated high above them and watched their world die.

And then I found myself beside the largest of the Great Drakes. It was lying on the ground, its wings flapping helplessly as it tried to return to the skies. But it was hopeless. A creature that size simply couldn’t survive, let alone fly, without magic. It’s eyes stared at me pleadingly, as if it knew I was there, then finally started to close. Pity tore at my heart as it died. The creature had been majestic, a true being of magic. And yet, the age of magic was over.

I awoke, screaming. Sweat ran down my forehead as I gasped for breath. It had been a dream, just a dream. I’d never had a True Dream in my life. The talent had been lost so long ago that some scholars believed it had never existed. And yet, I could still hear the screaming as I wiped sweat from my brow, still see the dead and the dying when I closed my eyes …

It felt so real.

The Zero Equation Snippet

27 Dec

It’ll be a while before I start on this one, but i just had this scene buzzing through my head.

Prologue I

I was nine when I touched the Family Sword for the first time.

It wasn’t something I was meant to do. My parents had made it clear to us that my sisters and I were not supposed to enter the Great Hall without an escort, let alone touch one of our family’s most priceless heirlooms. But … well, I suppose I should start at the beginning.

My sisters and I had been studying magic for two years. We were home-schooled, of course; we weren’t sent to primary school for another year. My family’s tutors saw to it that we were fed a diet of magical theory, ancient languages, magical runes and, of course, practical studies. My sisters had moved ahead in leaps and bounds, while I … I had yet to cast a single spell. I could see the disappointment on my father’s face, even though he tried to hide it; I could see the scorn and contempt on my sisters’ face when they realised I lacked any spark of magic. My potions were perfectly brewed, my runic diagrams and magical calculations were perfectly drawn …

… And it didn’t matter. I couldn’t perform even the simplest spell.

One cold winter evening, I stumbled out of the schoolroom feeling as though my head was on fire. It had been a long session, with a doddering old great-great-uncle for a tutor … he wasn’t a bad sort, not really, but he had a habit of addressing us by names that belonged to our older relatives. And he’d made me draw out a basic diagram again and again, as if simple repetition would finally lead to magic flowing out of my fingers and into the design. My head hurt, my fingers hurt … all I wanted was to catch an hour or two of sleep before dinner was served. I could hear my sisters and cousins playing in the snow outside as I reached the top of the stairs, the sound mocking me. They were animating snowmen and using them to have snowball fights, but … what could I do? There was no way I could join them. The best I could hope for was being turned into a snowman myself.

I was alone. It hurt, more than I cared to admit.

The sound behind me caught me by surprise. I started to duck, too late. The spell slammed into my back and my entire body froze. I was utterly unable to move, unable to save myself as I tumbled over and over, falling down the stairs. My body crashed into the banisters, the sound echoing though the stairwell as an unseen force pushed me further and further downwards. I caught a glimpse of Alana standing above me, posing dramatically on the top of the stairs. Her dark face was alight with glee.

I prayed to all the ancestors that her spell wouldn’t snap until I reached the bottom, praying with a desperation I rarely felt. The freeze spell saved me from feeling any pain, but if it gave out while I was still falling I’d crash straight into the banisters. Or something. My body kept flipping over and over – Alana must have combined her hex with a locomotive spell – until I crashed into the Great Hall and rolled over the marble floor. I hit the statue of Aguirre Primus and stopped, dead. My distant ancestor’s statue seemed to be glowering down at me in disapproval. How could one of his bloodline be so weak?

The spell held me firmly, keeping me still as Alana inched her way down the stairs. I could hear her footsteps tap-tapping on the stone, pausing every so often to make sure no one was coming to find out what was making the noise. Alana might be the favoured of the family, the one deemed most likely to succeed my father as Aguirre Matriarch, but even she would be in trouble if she was caught in the Great Hall. Dad would be angry and Mum would be furious. The Great Hall was for impressing guests, not for little girls to play. I tensed inwardly as I heard her walking over towards me, bracing myself for another cruel hex – or worse. And then she rolled me over and glared down at me.

“You are pathetic,” she said, nastily. A faint mark on her dark cheek glimmered with an unearthly light. She’d had a potions accident and the remnants of the brew had yet to wear off. It wasn’t dangerous, but it made her look silly. “You can’t even cancel a simple spell.”

I wanted to snap out a response, but I couldn’t move a muscle. She was right. I knew she was right. The freeze spell we’d been taught was among the simplest of hexes, the easiest to cast – and to cancel, if you knew how to focus your magic. I’d watched from the upper levels as the extended family romped around in the snow, freezing each other with gay abandon. And I’d wanted to join them, even though I knew I couldn’t …

Alana leaned forward, as if she had something important to share. “You want to know a secret? You’re not our sister.”

I had to fight to stay calm. I wanted to scream. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that I could really be the daughter of Joaquin and Sofia Aguirre. My parents were amongst the most powerful magicians in the kingdom, perhaps even the world. And I didn’t have any magic at all.

“Dad just wanted to claim he had triplets,” Alana added, in a sweet tone that didn’t fool me for a second. “He took a foundling girl and …”

The spell snapped. I started upwards, too late. Alana leapt backwards with commendable speed, one hand raised and ready to cast a spell. She knew better than to be within arm’s reach of me. Forging had made me strong for my age. I wanted to lunge at her, to break her nose for the second time, but … she’d get me before I managed to strike. I dreaded the thought of what she’d be like, after she went to school. She was quite bad enough now, with only a handful of spells at her disposal.

“I look like Dad,” I said. It was true. My face was solidly feminine, but I looked more like my father than my mother. “I …”

“There are glamours that can change a person permanently,” Alana reminded me. “Given time, they soak into the skin.”

I bunched my fists, feeling hot tears prickling at the corner of my eyes. She was lying. She had to be lying. And yet, there was a quiet nagging doubt at the back of my mind. What if … what if she wasn’t lying? A foundling girl would be defenceless. She’d have no family to come to her aid. No one would care if someone took her into their family and wrapped her in a glamour … no one would question her bloodline, if she was formally adopted. My father could have done that to me …

“That’s why you have no magic,” Alana said. She tried to sound regretful and failed utterly. “You’re not one of us.”

I tried to think, even though I wanted to cry. What if … what if … a thought struck me and I turned, looking for the Family Sword. It was embedded in a stone anvil, the visible part of the blade glowing faintly with a pearly white light. My father’s family had owned the sword since we’d joined the Thousand-Year Empire. We – those who shared a bloodline that dated back nearly two thousand years – were the only ones who could lift it.

“I’ll show you,” I said.

I heard her gasp as I walked towards the glowing sword, half-expecting to run into a protective spell. Dad would be furious if he knew I’d touched the blade. I’d be grounded for life or sent to bed without supper or … maybe he’d take one of Great Aunt Stregheria’s particularly unpleasant child-rearing suggestions. Her children didn’t exist and I still felt sorry for them. No magic snapped at me as I clambered onto the anvil, no ward held me in place while summoning the master of the house; I wrapped my dark fingers around the blade and pulled. It came out of the stone easily.

Alana gasped a word that Mum would have washed her mouth out with soap merely for thinking, let alone saying. I almost echoed her. The sword was huge, taller than I, yet I had no trouble holding it upright. It felt as light as a feather. The blade glowed brightly in my hands. I jumped down, holding the sword upright. It seemed to hum as I waved it through the air.

“You’re going to be in big trouble,” Alana said.

She jabbed a finger at me, casting a spell. A brilliant hex flashed through the air … and exploded harmlessly against the blade. The sword had moved in my hands, cutting the spell out of the air. I could feel it twisting, readying itself to deflect another spell. A trickle of unease ran through me as my body shifted, not entirely as I wished. The sword seemed to be controlling me, not the other way around. It felt as if it was going to slash out at Alana … no matter what I wanted. I was no longer in control.

Alana took a step backwards, fear flickering over her face. “I think you should put the sword back,” she managed, her voice quivering. “Cat …”

My legs moved forward of their own accord. The sword hummed louder, pulling me onwards. I tried desperately to let go, but my fingers seemed to be sinking into the hilt … it felt as though the sword was becoming part of me. The horror stories I’d been told about the dangers of Objects of Power suddenly felt terrifyingly real. I’d made a horrific mistake.

“Stop,” Dad’s voice said. He was behind me. The sword froze in my hands. “Put the blade down.”

I obeyed. The sword no longer felt part of me. It’s light dimmed the moment I let go of the hilt. And then I swung around and hugged my father, desperately. I knew he was going to be angry, I knew I was going to be punished, but … I wanted to hold him. I wanted to know it was going to be alright. I wanted …

“That was unwise,” Dad said, lifting me into his arms. “You’re nowhere near ready to touch the sword.”

“But I could touch the sword,” I said, plaintively. Alana had been wrong. I was my father’s daughter. “I’m one of the family. Right?”

“Oh, Caitlyn,” Dad said. He held me tightly. I heard a faint choke in his voice. “Was that ever in doubt?”

I couldn’t answer. Not then. But we both knew the truth.


24 Dec

Hi, everyone

First, MERRY CHRISMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of my readers. I’ve started a free book promotion – see link here – for 24th December to 26th. Please feel free to check them out or share the post. I’ve also added Storm Front to Kindle Unlimited.

It’s been a wild month. As you know, my second son was born on the 23rd November and things have been a little erratic since then. Thankfully, my mother-in-law was able to take care of Eric and allow me to finish my planned schedule to some degree (while the baby slept) although some of my plans have been thrown into the crapper.

I’m going to be taking most of the remainder of December and at least half of January off, depending on events. After that, well …

The good news is that I now have a contract for books 6-8 of the Angel in the Whirlwind series – Kat Falcone’s books. (The Hyperspace Trap will be coming out in February, although it’s more of a spin-off.) I’ve also completed The Promised Lie (The Unwritten Words I) and Alassa’s Tale (SIM 14.5). I’m hopeful they’ll be released soon.

Therefore, my plan for the next few months looks like this:

Feb – The Zero Equation (Zero 3)

March – Invincible (Ark 12)

April – The Princess in the Tower (SIM 15)

May – The Embers of War (Kat Falcone 6)

I’m considering other novellas set within the SIM universe, although so far I don’t have a coherent plot. Let me know what you’d like to see.


Magic in Allrianne

24 Dec

More from the Zero verse.  And spoilers …

Continue reading

The World of Allrianne and the Kingdom of Tintagel

24 Dec

Another section from the Zero universe …

The World of Allrianne and the Kingdom of Tintagel

Allrianne is effectively divided into three continents, formerly four (see below). Maxima and Minima, separated by the Inner Sea, were once ruled by the Thousand-Year Empire before its collapse. To the east, on the far side of the Desolation, lies Hangchow, home of a civilisation that is barely known to the denizens of Maxima and Minima; to the west lies the Saragossa Archipelago, presumably once a continent itself before being shattered by an unknown force somewhere in the distant past. There are a handful of island nations near both known civilisations, mostly engaged in sailing and fishing.

Very little is known for certain about the history of Maxima and Minima prior to the Thousand-Year Empire, although stories of lost emperors and god-kings echo down the ages. What is known is that a mid-sized city in Southern Maxima developed the first true understanding of magical principles, allowing it to rapidly conquer most of Maxima (as far north-east as the edge of the Desolation) and then much of Minima. Unlike previous conquerors, the Thousand-Year Empire was smart enough to integrate vast numbers of the natives into its system, allowing them to join the empire and work their way up the ranks. A culture hegemony was effectively imposed that would last until the empire’s fall, although rumours of hidden civilisations in unexplored regions of Minima or deep within the Desolation continue to this day.

Very little is also known about what happened to the Thousand-Year Empire. Records are sparse; there was a magical disaster of some kind (the Eternal City and the southern half of the Inner Sea are no-go zones as far as the vast majority of people are concerned) and the subsequent civil war destroyed much of the remaining imperial administration. Civilisation itself took a major blow, almost collapsing before reforming around the remnants of imperial administrators … now styling themselves kings and queens in their own right. A thousand years after the Fall, Maxima and Minima are divided into a number of kingdoms that compete endlessly for power. Although the kings claim to want to reunite the empire, it is growing clear that none of them can do it.

(In our terms, Maxima is Europe, Minima is Africa and Hangchow is China.)

The Kingdom of Tintagel sits on the northern edge of the Inner Sea (roughly Southern France, in our terms.) To the north, it is bordered by the Princedoms of Ardrossan; to the north sit the kingdoms of Galashiels and Balamory; to the east lies the abandoned core of the Thousand-Year Empire; to the south, on the other side of the Inner Sea, sits the kingdom of North Cairnbulg. Tintagel has a long history of rivalry with Galashiels (over disputed land) and North Cairnbulg (over trade). Despite that, in the hopes of cooling down tensions, King Rufus married his son to the Princess of North Cairnbulg.

Like most kingdoms in the post-empire world, Tintagel was founded by a warlord who found himself in a position that allowed him to translate his military force (he was originally the commander of the Tintagel City Garrison) into long-term power. The kingdom expanded until it reached its natural borders, swallowing up a number of minor kingdoms and principalities, either through force or negotiation. Over the years, as the continent stabilised, Tintagel became one of the great powers, engaging in overt and covert conflict with its rivals as it struggled for supremacy. The royal line, too, changed over the years. Very few people will admit it, but the current monarchs have no link to the original monarchs, let alone the Thousand-Year Empire.

In theory, Tintagel is ruled by King Rufus the Bold of Tintagel (known as King Rufus the Fat to his braver subjects.) In practice, owing to the high concentrations of magic within the kingdom, there are a number of limits on the king’s power. First amongst them is Parliament, divided into the House of Aristocracy (long-term landed aristocracy) and the House of Money (elected by taxpayers.) While the king still wields substantial power, parliament can limited him by refusing to vote funds or confirm treaties. Indeed, majorities in both houses are enough to dispose a king, although historically this has only ever been done as a rubber stamp once the king was safely removed from power. The king is thus forced to wheel and deal with parliament if he wants to get anything done.

Below that, the Great Charter guarantees the rights of all subjects, from the proudest lord to the lowliest peasant. Outside wartime, even the King cannot break the Great Charter lightly; Parliament may quietly agree with him, but they are unwilling to allow such a precedent to be set without resistance.

King Rufus and Queen Eleanor have one son; Henry, Crown Prince of Tintagel. Henry is married to Queen Saffron of North Cairnbulg; so far, they have two young children. Below the Crown Prince, King Rufus has three daughters, five nephews, seven nieces and a number of other relatives who are in the line of succession and technically have the right to be called prince or princess.

The Crown Prince is, technically, his father’s closest advisor and commander of his armies. In recent years, however, there have been stresses and strains on their relationship: the Crown Prince wants more power and freedom, including an estate of his own, while the king wishes to keep as much power as possible concentrated in his own hands. The Crown Prince does not even have anything to reward his followers that doesn’t come from his father. While he is still in line to inherit, he has started to withdraw more from courtly life.

Politically, Tintagel is divided into estates (ruled by the king and his noblemen), freeholds (independent settlements) and semi-independent cities. By tradition, the freeholds and cities enjoy a considerable amount of freedom in exchange for tax, although in practice this can vary widely. Falladine, a city on the border with Galashiels, is effectively ruled directly by the king’s representative, as skirmishes are not uncommon along the borders. The king is still permitted to recruit soldiers from the cities, although the army’s commanders prefer peasants. They tend to be less aware of their rights.

Landed aristocracy are expected to pay a certain amount of money each year in tax, as well as serving as the king’s representatives and army officers. Commoners who earn more than a set amount each year have to pay tax, but are compensated for this by the right to vote, stand for parliament, etc. (Social mobility is quite high, particularly in the cities, but there is a certain amount of discrimination in favour of the children of taxpayers.) The aristocracy often tries to integrate particularly brilliant or successful commoners into its ranks, normally by proposing marriage alliances. (The children of such marriages are considered equal to the children of pure-blooded noblemen.)

Power and position within the aristocracy depends on landholding; the larger the estate, the more powerful the nobleman. It does tend to vary at times, depending on ready cash and a number of other factors, but generally land equals power. Senior aristocrats may be relatively secure in their positions, yet even they may face challenges from lesser family or a sudden assassination that sees a shift in the balance of power. There are constant rumours about aristocrats who get into debt, putting up chunks of their estates as collateral.

There is no (legal) slavery within Tintagel, although lower-ranking peasants are often tied to the land (with the cities as escape valves for particularly rebelliously-minded peasants, who might otherwise cause trouble.) There is also a remarkable degree of sexual equality; women can do almost everything a man can, save for serving in the army. It isn’t uncommon to encounter households – even the noblest – led by a woman.

There is no organised religion within Tintagel. Most people worship – more accurately, honour – their ancestors, regardless of whatever they actually did. A handful of peasants worship the land and seasons, celebrating the changing of the seasons with elaborate ceremonies. The monarchy tries to get people to honour long-dead kinds, but success is very limited outside

Jude’s Sorcerous Academy

22 Dec

Jude’s Sorcerous Academy – more commonly called simply Jude’s – is the largest school of magic within the Kingdom of Tintagel and one of the largest on the continent of Maxima.

Jude’s was founded as a basic school of magic shortly after Shallot was incorporated as a city within the Thousand-Year Empire, a place designed to train magicians and identify students who might benefit from a scholarship to the Eternal City. It was considerably smaller in those days, although the school purchased vast tracts lands around the original building (accounting for its presence within South Shallot). It wasn’t until the civil war that put an end to the Thousand-Year Empire that Jude’s started to take on the character we know today; one of the premier magic schools within the continent.

The original building was relatively small. However, as the school grew, more and more wings and buildings were added to the mix, giving the school a somewhat chaotic appearance. Other buildings were swallowed up by the expanding school or pressed down and used as the base for other buildings. The interior of the school is a maze, an absolute headache for new students who find it hard to navigate. Now, vast swathes of the school are disused and, technically, sealed off. However, bright students can and do find ways to explore the disused sections of the building.

Technically, the school is run by the Triad; three magicians, appointed by Magus Court, who make up the school board. Practically, the school is administered by the Castellan, who generally has the final say in everything from class timetables to discipline. Below him, each subject has two to four teachers, who sort out their own pecking order.

Students generally enter Jude’s at twelve, after they pay the admission fees (or win a scholarship). Upon arrival, they are sorted into single-sex dorms – roughly ten students to a dorm – which will be their home for the next year. (Jude’s does not admit day pupils.) The students will be resorted every year, ensuring that each student will know nearly everyone of consequence within his or her year. Most students will remain friends with their dormmates even after they are separated by the resort.

Socially, students are divided into lowerclassmen (12-16) and upperclassmen (17-19). The upperclassmen are expected to keep an eye on the lowerclassmen, teach them how to be students and maintain discipline, although some upperclassmen take the duties more seriously than others. Fifth Years are often assigned to supervise First Year dorms, at least for the first five months. After that, the students are expected to elect their own dorm supervisors (although the elected student can be stripped of position by the staff, if they prove to be a bad choice). Upperclassmen have authority to order the younger students about (sending them to fetch or carry, for example) or administer punishments – writing lines, detentions, etc – at will, though it must be noted that abuse of this power draws serious consequences. It’s generally agreed that drawing the attention of the teachers – particularly the Castellan – is a bad idea.

Most social groups congregate around the children of the aristocracy, mimicking the patron-client relationships that shape the city outside the walls. Aristocratic children often trade help and support to common-born children in exchange for their service, although such patterns don’t always continue once the students have graduated. It’s rare for a patronage network to include older or younger students, which can be a shock to the leader when he/she graduates and discovers that he/she is back at the bottom (although someone with the right birth is already quite high up the ladder.)

Friendships between the years are rare and friendships between upperclassmen and lowerclassmen are almost unknown. Even older siblings will generally ignore their younger siblings at school.

The typical weekday starts with breakfast, which is held between 0700 and 0830. Classes start at 0900, each one normally an hour or two long. Lowerclassmen take their lunch at 1200; upperclassmen have theirs at 1300. Classes end for the day at 1630, followed by homework, private study and afterschool detentions. Students generally take their dinner between 1700 and 1900; Lights Out is at 2100, whereupon all lowerclassmen are expected to be in their dorms. Sneaking out after Lights Out is an old tradition, but so is unpleasant detentions if caught.

Lowerclassmen generally study a number of subjects, including Charms, Potions, Forging, Protective and Defensive Magic and Ethics of Magic. Each student is required to show both an understanding of the theory and practical skills before they pass the class. Assuming they pass their end-of-year exams, they will be allowed to go on to the next level. Upperclassmen have more focused studies, depending on what they want to do with their lives. A prospective Potions Master, for example, will limit his studies to useful classes.

Lowerclassmen have relatively little freedom. They are not allowed to leave the school during term time, save in emergencies. They do attend dances and suchlike, but such events are designed more to teach the social graces than have fun. Upperclassmen have considerably more freedom – they can leave the school to attend social events, for example – yet they are almost always chaperoned within the school. Student romance is not precisely discouraged, but it can be scandalous if it gets out of hand (particularly as very few student romances last once the students graduate).

Students are generally expected to uphold the ethos and traditions of the school at all times. On an open level, this includes practicing magic and pushing the limits of the possible; on a more covert level, this includes upholding traditions and practices that seem a little odd to the outside eye. Students are expected to solve problems themselves, instead of sneaking to the staff; students push and pull at each other all the time, testing what they can and cannot do (or get allowed to do.) Some of these traditions are weird, but harmless; students often discover a rival in their dorms they can match themselves against. Others can be dangerous, if – when – such a relationship gets out of hand.

A student is expected to be honourable and keep his/her word at all times. There may be no contracts or oaths worked into patronage relationships running through the school, but a reputation for dishonourable behaviour – not repaying favours, for example – can haunt a student long after leaving school. An upperclassman who makes use of a particular lowerclassman for errands is expected to repay the lowerclassman, perhaps in scholarly assistance or education in the social graces. Most consequences for exploitive behaviour are unofficial, but non-the-less real.

Despite its location, Jude’s is meant to be politically neutral. The Great Houses do vie for power over the school, as it gives them the chance to identify promising newcomers and recruit them, yet it is generally agreed that such power will not be exploited too far. Family feuds do sometimes cast a long shadow over Jude’s, but the Castellan normally keeps them from getting too far out of hand. Hexing one’s family’s enemies is traditional and allowed, actually trying to kill them is not.

Life in Shallot

21 Dec

I wrote this as a piece of background material for the Zero universe.   How does it sound?

Life In Shallota

Although the city of Shallot is strikingly multiracial, it is actually quite monocultural. There is very little variation amongst the long-term residents and even newcomers to the city rapidly pick up and adapt to its social norms. Despite this – and the rule of the Great Houses – Shallot is also a place where an intelligent and capable man can rise high, even without a blood connection to the ruling class. Indeed, being a ‘new man’ – i.e. someone who came from nothing and became a wealthy or powerful personage – is regarded as a badge of honour. A ‘new man’ will find himself invited to marry into the Great Houses or, if he is very lucky, will have the chance to found a House of his own.

With two exceptions, Shallot does not draw lines between people. Women have the same rights as men, more or less; they have the right to save money, own property, sign contracts, seek redress through the courts, etc. The first is the simple fact that the highest places in the city are reserved for native children – although the child of a ‘new man’ might win a seat on Magus Court – thus ensuring that public policy remains firmly in the hands of the locals. The second is a quiet, but pervasive discrimination against people who cannot state their family lines back at least five generations. Family is very important in Shallot and people who lack a family often suffer for it. (Even bastardry carries no stigma, if the child knows his or her father.) This accounts for the problems faced by the children sired by Hangchowese sailors, very few of whom know anything about their father’s family. They tend to slip into the underclass because it’s hard for them (and their descendents) to marry well.

Shallot was originally founded in the middle era of the Thousand-Year Empire, a port city on the northern edge of the Inner Sea. It’s proximity to the Gap allowed it to become a hub for trading, even as the iron ships of the empire explored the coastlines of Minima and probed westwards towards the Saragossa Archipelago. (It isn’t actually certain if the empire discovered the Saragossa Archipelago or had any contacts with Hangchow, although it is certainly technically possible.) It grew into a centre of magic and trade before the Thousand-Year Empire collapsed into civil war, allowing the original City Fathers to keep the city safe despite the predations of various warlords and raiding factions. When the Kingdom of Tintagel formed out of the remainder of the state, the city allied with the king in exchange for a specific degree of autonomy from the king’s rule. The slow stabilisation of Maxima and North Minima allowed the city to become a new trading hub, although it was centuries before the old trading links were re-established.

The government of Shallot is probably best described as a mess, a result of the emergency measures used to save the city after the Thousand-Year Empire collapsed into civil war. The Great Houses appoint representatives to the city’s council, as do the guilds; a handful of representatives are also elected by the moneyed and propertied classes. Most laws are hashed out in private council first, then presented to the overall court. (In theory, Shallot is subject to the king; in practice, Shallot goes its own way.) Below Magus Court, the various guilds have considerable authority over their members, but no guild is exclusive.

Shallot is policed by the City Guard, who are armed and trained by the Great Houses. (The Great Houses also posses armsmen of their own.) The city also plays host to a number of Kingsmen, the king’s personal knights. The Kingsmen are responsible for investigating serious crimes (including the kidnapping in The Zero Curse) and maintaining the peace. However, given the rivalries between the Great Houses, it is generally agreed that the only thing really keeping the peace is a grim understanding that an all-out House War will be utterly devastating.

Shallot is effectively divided into three sections: North Shallot, South Shallot and Water Shallot, the latter being a large island and port city with a thriving naval trade. North Shallot is the richest part of the city, home to merchants and traders as well as sorcerers, alchemists and enchanters; South Shallot is poorer, although also home to Jude’s Sorcerous Academy and Eupalinos Institute of Higher Learning. The three sections are separated by the Shallot River, which runs south through Shallot and into the sea.

Magic runs strong in Shallot, with even the merest citizens having access to a considerable number of spells. Much education is focused around magic, even for those who have no intention of treating magic as a career. Indeed, those who cannot cast spells are known as Zeros, a step down from the lowest recorded level (magicians are ranked from one to ten) and ruthlessly mocked, even though limited (or no) magic wouldn’t be a handicap outside the city. The Great Houses are keen to invite commoner magicians to marry into them, simply to keep the blood strong. Visitors to the city are well-advised to memorise ways to indicate that they are human, in the event of a practical joker casting a spell and transfiguring them into a frog. (Turning someone into an animal that cannot signal – a slug, for example – is illegal.)

Shallot is particularly known for both its ships – Shallot sends ships around the globe, ranging from short trips to nearby ports to year-long voyages to Hangchow – and for its forgers, who craft Devices of Power. The latter, in particular, have made the city wealthy. A skilled forger – or potions master, or charms master – can make his fortune with a few years of hard work. Like everywhere else, Shallot has hundreds of forgers and artisans trying to duplicate the secret behind Objects of Power, although – so far – only one person has ever cracked the puzzle.

There are two general ways to know something about a denizen of Shallot. The first lies in their clothing, which is often a mark of their social status. Wealth and power is indicated by the materials used to make the clothes – silk, for example, is extremely expensive and worn only by the very wealthy – while family ties are marked by specific colours and suchlike. (A family’s retainers will wear its colours, a family’s clients will wear its arms.) A ‘new man’ will often adopt a flashy style of dress which is at variance with the more sober outfits of the established families, although this isn’t seen as a bad thing (it is when done by the established families). Poorer people use cheaper materials, but tend to mimic the styles of their betters; children are dressed in miniature versions of adult clothes.

The second lies in the way they wear their hair. An underage boy (i.e. one who has not been declared a man) will wear his hair short, then draw it up into an elaborate hairstyle (or wear a regency-style wig) upon reaching adulthood. An underage girl (i.e. one who has not yet had her Season) will braid her hair, then let it hang down when she reaches adulthood. Upon marrying, she will wear her hair up and keep it that way. A homosexual man will grow his hair long; a lesbian woman will cut her hair short. There’s no stigma attached to open homosexuality, but wearing the wrong hairstyle is sometimes seen as criminal. Indeed, it is considered a form of false advertising.

Family is extremely important in Shallot and it is rare, indeed, for anyone to go against their family in a major way. (It is possible to be disowned, but even that is rare.) The Great Houses are actually webs of interconnecting families, tied together by a single bloodline; lesser family (i.e. ones some distance from the core family) are expected to support the core, rather than strike out on their own. In exchange for loyalty, most families allow a certain degree of democracy, with the heads of each subfamily getting a say in family affairs. A family is headed by a Patriarch or Matriarch, who holds the title for life, but he or she is subject to the family council. Children (which includes boys who have not been declared adults and girls who haven’t had their Season) have no vote.

Multiple births – twins, triplets, etc – are regarded as a sign the children will be magically powerful. It isn’t actually clear if this is true, although the majority of aristocratic births are twins or triplets. Accordingly most magicians use potions to try to encourage multiple births, with varying degrees of success.

By law, all children in Shallot have to receive a basic education, which generally takes place between eight and twelve. The aristocracy (and their retainers) generally home-school their children, given them a comprehensive magical education as well as skills (older languages and suchlike) which are rarely taught to the poorer classes. Commoner children normally attend primary schools, which are free. Particularly smart children are often offered the chance to win scholarships and go to Jude’s (for magic) or Eupalinos (everything else).

At twelve, children either go to secondary school or straight into apprenticeships of varying degrees of formality. Parents who wish to send their children to secondary school have to pay (academic achievement comes second) or win a scholarship. As both Jude’s and Eupalinos serve as places to meet and get to know the future leaders of society, it isn’t uncommon for parents to go into debt to make sure their children can attend. The friendships and patron-client networks forged in school can go on for life. In the case of an apprenticeship, children generally trade service for instruction in a useful trade. It isn’t uncommon for an alchemist apprentice, for example, to rise high even without formal education at Jude’s.

When a child is deemed to have reached adulthood (normally, somewhere between eighteen and twenty, although a child can be declared adult at sixteen or as late as twenty-five) they undergo a ceremony. Boys – men, now – normally have a private chat with their father, which often includes discussion of any family secrets and other matters before they don their first wig. Aristocratic girls are generally presented at Court before the king (or his representative) for a formal dance, then they can wear their hair down and be courted as adults. (Courting a girl who has not had her Season is regarded as extremely sinful regardless of the girl’s physical age.) Commoner girls generally have a private party, then wear their hair down too.

It is unusual for anyone to be denied adulthood past twenty-five. When it happens, it is generally assumed that there is something wrong with the child (i.e. some kind of mental problem) or the parents. However, it is rare for anyone on the outside to intervene. (A child might be emancipated if younger, but almost always with an appointed guardian.)

Courting is a process that generally involves both sets of parents, although some particularly brave or foolhardy couples will make the arrangements on their own. Parents can and do arrange marriages for their children, but the children have the final say; a parent can suggest a martial partner, but not force one on their children. Marriages are signed by a contract, then considered unbreakable unless the couple decide to separate. This is rare and almost always causes problems, particularly if there are children. (There are no problems when widows or widowers want to remarry.)

Marriages amongst the aristocracy generally take place between twenty and thirty, with the mother taking time off from her career to have children and then picking up again when the children are born. (Aristocratic women often work from home or hire nannies to take care of the kids.) It is quite unusual to have one’s first marriage past thirty, although it has been known to happen. Generally, wives are encouraged to have children first – while they’re young – and then return to their careers.

Some of the Great Houses engage in betrothals of their children, as a sign they are serious about a long-term alliance. These arrangements don’t always last when the children come of age, as they are often not disposed to go through with the marriage. It is generally believed that the alliance will still hold together, as both families have had a chance to get used to being allies even without the marriage.

Inheritance is a complicated issue. The vast majority of a family’s possessions are entailed, passed down from Patriarch to Patriarch. However, it is difficult to determine in advance just who will be the next Patriarch. The family council makes the final choice, after considering all the possible options (technically, any family adult can become Patriarch.) Some families have specific rules – House Rubén only has Patriarchs, for example – while others are far more open. Possessions that are not entailed – money the parents earned on their own, for example – are normally shared amongst their biological children. Occasionally, someone may ask for their inheritance early, taking the money at the price of being excluded from any future division of property.

As of Year 1993 (the dating system counts from the day the Thousand-Year Empire was formally established), the two most powerful Great Houses are House Aguirre and House Rubén. Other significant houses include Alidade, Bolingbroke, Fitzwilliam and McDonald.

The forerunners of House Aguirre were native to Saltesh, a kingdom on the other side of the Great Minima Desert. Already powerful magicians, they were ripe for recruitment when the Thousand-Year Empire circumvented the desert and pushed into Saltesh, accepting a subordinate position within the empire in exchange for education in ‘modern’ magic. The core of the family moved to the Eternal City, where they realised that they were unlikely to be able to wield significant power simply because of the sheer multitude of other (well-established) families. Accordingly, they moved to Shallot when the city was opened for trade and became one of the founding families when the city became independent, establishing a patronage network that bolsters their already-strong magic.

House Aguirre is known for its black skin, dark eyes and strong magic. However, the Heirs Primus (the children of the Patriarch) are regarded as problematic. Triplets; one is cruel, one is lazy and one appears to have no magic at all …

House Rubén has a fair claim to being the oldest family in Shallot, with roots that lead all the way back to the early days of the Thousand-Year Empire. Indeed, the current House Rubén is actually an offshoot of the original; unlike House Aguirre, House Rubén chose to move a small branch of the family to Shallot rather than relocate the entire family. (Uncharitable observers suggest that the offshoot was led by the family disgrace, who was ordered out of the Eternal City to keep him from embarrassing the remainder of the family.) It therefore took them decades to accept that the main body of the family had died in the Eternal City, by which point their rivals had established themselves firmly within the body politic. Since then, House Rubén has slowly – but surely – battled to gain the prominence it feels it deserves. The birth of two children – one a skilled magician, the other a skilled forger – seems to promise a new era for the family …