Archive | October, 2018

Snippet–The Alchemist’s Apprentice (Zero 5)

31 Oct

I had this going through my mind …


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 and my name had been passed down from mother to daughter, 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.

“Be careful, Rebecca,” my mother said. “You must get the right sort of job.”

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.

Chapter One

Potions have a magic all of their own.

Master Travis had told me, time and time again, that most magicians preferred to work with their own magic, rather than unlock the inherent power of everything from Nightmare Grass to Dragon Scales. It was risky, they said, to brew a potion when the slightest misstep might cause an explosion that would blow both the magician and anyone standing too close to the next world. And yet, I could never agree with them. There was just something about watching a potion settle, the magical sheen growing more powerful as the unlocked powers blended together, that I found wonderful. Master Travis had never had to beat me to get me to brew. The fascination of watching a potion come together was more than enough to keep me bent over the cauldron.

I felt his eyes on me as I carefully – very carefully – dropped a tiny cup of beetle eyes into the liquid, bracing myself to shout a warning and duck under the scorched wooden table if I felt a sudden surge in magic. I had been working for nearly an hour, starting with boiling water and adding the remainder of the ingredients one by one; he’d watched me like a hawk, ready to snap a warning if I made a single mistake. I didn’t resent his presence, even though I knew people who would feel that he was denying me the chance to learn on his own. The wards around the apothecary were strong, but nowhere near strong enough to keep an expossion from killing me or starting a fire if something went badly wrong. I would be ungrateful indeed to complain about something meant to keep me safe.

The liquid bubbled, changing colour from yellow to blue. A faint shimmer appeared on top as the magic shifted, before settling down. I let out a sigh of relief – a stable potion would remain stable as long as no one did anything stupid, like hurling a fireball into the brew – and sat back on my chair. My legs felt stiff and sore. I’d been standing so still that they’d started to cramp. I rubbed at them as Master Travis checked the brew, carefully sampling it with a spellcaster of his own design. I didn’t need him to tell me it was perfect. I’d done everything right.

“Well done,” Master Travis said. He gave me one of his rare smiles. I’d never seen him happy, save for when he was brewing. He’d put me in charge of the apothecary almost as soon as I learnt the ropes, a sign he trusted me. “Good enough for the healing arts.”

I felt my cheeks heat. Master Travis sold potions everywhere, but healers were very particular about when and where they bought potions. I’d always had the impression that they had a small army of Potions Masters and Master Brewers tucked away, brewing whatever they needed. But then, there weren’t that many students willing to seek a mastery in brewing. It demanded dedication as well as skill. A student who lacked perfect control over their magic was more likely to blow himself up then graduate. But I had that perfect control. Master Travis would hardly have let me brew some potions – minor ones, to be fair – if he hadn’t been sure I wouldn’t blow up the apothecary. I dreaded to think how much it would cost to rebuild the apothecary.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

I played with my hair as he bottled and sealed the potion, affixing his personal design to the lid of each vial. I didn’t feel any resentment. Master Travis wouldn’t be able to sell the potions unless he vouched for their condition. Even now, even after four years of comprehensive instruction, I wouldn’t be able to sell them myself. Not to the healers, at any rate. There were people who wouldn’t ask so many questions, but they wouldn’t pay so much either. And the City Guard and the Kingsmen had no qualms about harassing unlicensed brewers. They thought that one of them would eventually blow up the city.

It felt strange to have my hair hanging freely, rather than in braids. My stepfather – technically the head of my family, even though he was renting me out to Master Travis – had pushed me into adulthood as soon as he decently could, severing some of the ties that bound us together in a single blow. My half-sisters envied my freedom, or what they saw as my freedom, but I wasn’t so sure. And yet, it had its advantages. I didn’t need a guardian looking over my shoulders, not now. I could sign contracts on my own. I could even undertake a formal apprenticeship without my stepfather’s permission. Paying for it would be tricky – my stepfather had confiscated half my wages for the last four years – but I wasn’t completely destitute. And besides, I had a plan.

I lifted my eyes to look at Master Travis, feeling a surge of love for the old man. He was my father. Not my stepfather, who had washed his hands of me; not my real father, who had sailed away to Hangchow instead of giving me a family. Master Travis had practically treated me as a daughter, not as a servant or a slave. I’d seen the bruises on other girls – and boys – who’d gone into service. And there were rumours of worse things than the occasional beatings. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the details. It was enough to know that I had been spared such horrors …

… And if Master Travis took me as a formal apprentice, my future would be secure.

The plan was simple enough, I thought. I was a legal adult. I could pledge myself to him for the five years it would take to qualify as a Potions Mistress in my own right. I wouldn’t be a qualified magician, not like someone who’d graduated from Jude’s, but with his blessing and certification I would be able to set up my own shop. Or stay with him, if he wanted. The apothecary was big enough for two Potion Masters. I wasn’t going to steal his secret recipes and spread them far and wide. I just wanted a life of my own.

“Master,” I said, once he had finished sealing the potions. “I …”

A chime echoed through the apothecary. I looked down, automatically. Someone had stepped into the apothecary below. Someone had … I swallowed, hard. It was nearly midnight. Who would be walking the streets of Water Shallot at this time? Not anyone with any good intentions, I was sure. This late, the only people who would come visiting were landlords and protection racket thugs … and the latter, at least, knew better than to threaten an alchemist. Master Travis had friends in the community. Very few people wanted to risk his ire.

Master Travis let out an irritated sigh. “Go see who it is,” he ordered. “I’ll finish here.”

“Yes, Master,” I said, standing. “I’ll see to it, then close up for the night.”

I hurried down the darkened stairs, keeping one hand on the rickety banister to ensure I didn’t fall and tumble right down to the bottom. The lanterns below had come on, automatically, when someone entered the shop, but Master Travis had never bothered to illuminate the stairwell. It would have disrupted his misdirection wards. I took a moment to brush my hair back as I reached the bottom, then stepped into the light. A young man was waiting for me, standing behind the counter. He was examining the bottles on the shelves with a curiously bored expression.

I felt my temper begin to fray. “Can I help you?”

He turned, slowly, allowing me to see his outfit. He was quality. He had to be quality. No one else could afford a blend of silks and satins, let alone walk through Water Shallot without fear of attack. The livery on his shoulder marked him as one of the Great Noblemen, from the Great Houses. I knew them all, of course. We all knew the Great Houses, even though they rarely deigned to look upon us. My throat was suddenly dry. If a Bolingbroke decided I’d insulted him, I was in deep trouble. Even Master Travis would be unable to protect me.

I hastily dipped a curtsey, then went down on one knee. I could feel his eyes, far less warm than Master Travis’s, studying me for a long moment before he let out an exaggerated sigh. I resisted the urge to look up, terrified that he would find a reason – another reason – to take offense. Master Travis might be a big man, in Water Shallot, but he couldn’t stand against a nobleman. A word in the right ears might see him banished from Shallot – or dead. And no one would care about a half-caste girl at all.

“You may rise,” the man said.

It took all my strength to stand on wobbly knees. His eyes were watching me – I shivered as I felt them pass over my breasts, silently grateful that I hadn’t worn anything too revealing – as I moved. I looked back, careful not to meet his eyes. He was handsome, with strikingly long blond hair and a smile that seemed to light up the room. His clothes were cut to reveal his muscular arms and legs, suggesting that he wanted to show off his physical strength as much as his magic. I didn’t dare try to probe his magical field, not when that too could be taken as an insult, but I was sure he’d be strong. The Great Houses were always strong in magic. The handful of low-power magicians born to their bloodlines were often quietly sent to the countryside before they could ruin their family’s reputations.

“I am Reginald Bolingbroke,” the young man announced. He sounded as if he expected me to know him. I didn’t, of course. I might have memorised the livery, but I didn’t know Reginald Bolingbroke from the rest of his family. It wasn’t as if I had time to read the society pages. “And you are?”

I hesitated. Up close, he didn’t look that much older than me. I guessed he wasn’t older than nineteen. Wearing his hair long might be a fashion statement, proof that he didn’t have to care about what High Society found acceptable, or it might be a hint that he was more interested in men than women. I didn’t know for sure and I didn’t dare ask. A nobleman would be expected to marry and have children no matter his personal proclivities. There was certainly no way he’d be interested in me.

“Rebecca, My Lord,” I said, feeling his eyes lingering on my face. “I greet you and …”

“A very typical name for a very uncommon beauty,” Reginald mused. “Your father is unknown, is he not?”

“Yes,” I said. Four years of good food had done wonders for my development – I was no longer as scrawny as I’d been as a child – but it had also sharpened my features. There was no mistaking me for anything, save for a fatherless half-caste. “He went back home before I was born.”

“A mistake on his part, no doubt,” Reginald said. “He should have acknowledged you before he left.”

I felt a pang of bitter shame. No one cared about my looks. Reginald might be as pale as the moon, but House Aguirre was as dark as the night and House McDonald had bright red hair and bluff cheeks that spoke of an origin somewhere in Garstang. My looks didn’t matter so much as my lack of any recorded family. I was a bastard, plain and simple. And the only half-caste family I knew that had achieved any kind of success in High Society was House Griffin. Their daughters knew their mother …

And their father is one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, I thought, sardonically. I imagine that helped a little too.

Reginald cleared his throat. “I believe your master is expecting me,” he said. “Perhaps you could call him.”

I blinked. Master Travis wasn’t expecting anyone, as far as I knew. Normally, visitors came in the morning or late afternoon. Reginald was late. Reginald was very late. I wondered, suddenly, if he had a small army of bodyguards camped outside. A powerful magician could defend himself, of course, but it would be better to deter attack rather than cause a mess that would require a great deal of expensive soothing. I didn’t want to think about what might happen if Reginald took offense …

“My Lord,” Master Travis said.

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I’d been so intent on Reginald that I hadn’t heard Master Travis coming down the stairs. I kicked myself, mentally. I was normally more aware of my surroundings than that! But Reginald had distracted and discomforted me.

“Master Travis,” Reginald said. “I see you got my note.”

“I did,” Master Travis said. “Rebecca, close the shutters and then go to bed. If I don’t see you in the morning, open the shop as usual.”

“Yes, Master,” I said, obediently. There was an edge in his voice that told me not to argue, not now. Reginald’s presence didn’t bode well for either of us. “I’ll get right on it.”

Master Travis nodded, then led Reginald up the stairs and into his private chamber. I felt a stab of envy, despite my fears, as the wards went up. There was no way I could eavesdrop. It hurt more than I cared to admit. Master Travis rarely let me into his private chamber – normally, I was only allowed in to dust and then under close supervision – but he’d taken Reginald right inside. I wondered if the young nobleman would appreciate the honour Master Travis had done him. The private chamber was the heart of the building. The wards around it were so strong that I doubted anyone could crack them without a great deal of effort.

Or an Object of Power designed to crack wards, I thought, as I pulled down the shutters to signify that we were very definitely closed. But anyone who could get their hands on one of those wouldn’t want to steal anything from us.

I smiled at the thought, then hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. Master Travis had told me to go to bed, but I wanted to stay awake and see what time Reginald left. And yet … this was serious. Anything that involved a nobleman was serious. I sighed and started to climb the two flights of stairs to my garret, closing the door behind me. Master Travis would tell me what was going on tomorrow, if he was so inclined. Until then, I’d just have to wait and see.

The lantern came on as I entered the tiny chamber, bathing the entire room in an eerie white glow. I smiled as I sat down on the bed and started to undress, remembering just how long it had taken to get the spell right in the first place. I hadn’t grown up with magic, let alone someone willing to teach me how to conjure properly. It was sheer luck, I thought, that Master Travis had been capable of showing me the basics. I wasn’t sure where he’d been taught – some of his spells were different to those in the books I’d purchased from the markets – but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they worked.

I splashed water on my face, then drew the blind down and climbed into bed. It was already far too late to stay up and read, although Master Travis would hardly check on me once I’d closed the door. He’d simply make sarcastic remarks if I woke up with a headache, or failed to get the fire lit and breakfast started before he climbed out of bed himself. I sometimes felt he wouldn’t bother to feed himself if I wasn’t looking after him. It was something that worried me, more than I cared to admit. A full-time apprentice could hardly be a servant as well.

Perhaps we could take another girl into service, I thought. It was an idle flight of fancy – I knew enough about the shop’s finances to know that Master Travis could hardly pay two sets of wages – but I clung to it anyway. Or maybe I could have a longer apprenticeship.

I pulled the blanket over my head and muttered a single Word of Power, powering down the spell in the lantern. The room plunged into darkness, broken only by a faint hint of moonlight coming through the overhead window. Master Travis and I had spent months trying to fix up the roof, weaving spell after spell into the leaky wood, but he’d reluctantly conceded that it was probably beyond fixing. The landlord, damn the man, was dragging his feet on any proper repairs.

It felt like I hadn’t slept at all when I awoke, sunlight streaming through the window. I stood hastily, casting a quick spell to check the time. It was six in the morning, but I could already hear the sounds of the city coming to life. Down below, the milkmen would be rushing bottles of milk from the countryside to the cafes and shops before they opened for business. I knew I’d find two bottles outside the door, waiting for me. I pulled on my robe and hurried downstairs. There was a note on the kitchen table, waiting for me. Master Travis had ordered me to forget his breakfast and go straight to work.

Odd, I thought, as I dug up some bread and jam for myself. What happened last night?

But the scrap of paper offered no answer.

Review – Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years

28 Oct

Review – Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years

-John Guy

It is a curious fact that most biographies of Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I of England, start with her early life and stop with her greatest victory, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth’s later years, John Guy argues, have been left unstudied by historians, even though Elizabeth was born in 1533 and ruled from 1558 to 1603, a longer run than many male monarchs. Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years seeks to invert that perspective by studying the later years of Elizabeth’s rule, following the queen as she grew older and faced challenges that would eventually lead to the execution of one of her successors and the forced expulsion of another. The picture of Elizabeth that emerges from the pages is one that is not altogether flattering – she was not ‘Good Queen Bess’ – but very human. It is also an outline of the problems in being a women ruler in what was, very much, a man’s world.

This was reflected in a series of problems that faced Elizabeth right from the start. She had the advantage of not having her bedchamber invaded by courtiers, an issue that bedevilled James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), but she also couldn’t chair meetings of her privy council, making it harder for her to control the men who – theoretically, at least – were subject to her rule. She could not, at first, lay down the law in the manner of a male ruler – it is hard to imagine Henry VIII tolerating such a situation – and while she learnt to play them off against one another, the problem was always precarious. This was made worse by the simple fact that Elizabeth wasn’t married; there was no prospect of a heir who was both indisputably legitimate, in the sense that he was Elizabeth’s son, which threw the whole question of the succession into doubt. Who was the legitimate heir?

In some ways, Elizabeth was selfish not to attempt to marry and have children. But, at the same time, she had plenty of reason to fear marriage. She knew, from watching her half-sister, that a husband would seek to dominate her – one cleric argued that ‘a woman may rule as a magistrate and yet obey as a wife’ – and entangle her country in foreign wars. (Later, she also had the experience of watching Mary Queen of Scots go through the same trauma.) A husband, be he a foreign prince or an English nobleman, would bring trouble in his wake. He could hardly do otherwise. Elizabeth needed a strong right arm and she didn’t dare find one.

Indeed, Elizabeth faced a unique dilemma. The strongest candidate for the throne, assuming she didn’t have a child of her own, was Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth did not want to do anything that would throw the principle of hereditary succession into doubt. But Mary Queen of Scots was supposed to be a Catholic and many of her courtiers were adamantly opposed to her succession, to the point where they planned to murder Mary if Elizabeth died suddenly and it looked as if she would claim the throne. By the time Mary Queen of Scots fled to England, forcing Elizabeth to make some hard decisions about her future, the problem of Mary’s potential succession had become acute. Elizabeth would forever regret being pushed into ordering Mary’s execution. To a woman of strong religious convictions, it felt as if she had done something terrible. And perhaps she had.

Elizabeth’s greatest weaknesses, however, lay in the military sphere. She could not command troops in battle, unlike her father, and this posed a second set of problems. On one hand, she simply didn’t understand the problems of modern war; on the other, she found it immensely difficult to issue orders to her generals once they were outside her direct control, a problem made worse by the slow communications of the era. Elizabeth regularly changed her orders, to the point where she was promising thousands of troops one moment and slashing their numbers the next. She simply never committed enough troops and resources to the endless war with Spain, although it should be noted that Elizabeth’s resources were very limited. England could not afford an endless land war with Spain. This caused a great deal of frustration for her generals, but – far worse – it strained relationships with the Netherlands and France. Perhaps it was not surprising that the French eventually left the alliance. They had ample reason to know that Elizabeth was not a reliable ally. But Elizabeth had good reason to be extremely careful. Spain made no less than six attempts to land on English shores.

She was also not a reliable commander for her troops. Elizabeth’s troops were paid very poorly – they were also expected to pay for their uniforms and suchlike too – and they were understandably not enthused about going to war. They were even abandoned overseas when they couldn’t be brought home, something that led to mutiny and riots. Elizabeth was luckier than she deserved, in many ways. Again, someone with direct experience of war might have been able to escape these problems. Elizabeth’s comparison of herself to Richard II, who was disposed by his far more capable cousin, was more accurate than she might have guessed. Richard also had far more limited military experience.

As Elizabeth grew older, she faced newer challenges. The most serious, perhaps, was the problems caused by the political contest between the dashing Earl of Essex, who wanted to be her champion and seek military glory, and Cecil, one of her most trusted councillors. Essex was undoubtedly a brave man, but his flashes of genius proved no match for Cecil’s careful plodding. Matters grew worse until Essex was put in command of the army sent to Ireland, a no-win situation for him (and a no-lose situation for Elizabeth, as Essex would either win or fail so badly his influence would be gone forever). His position was steadily undermined by his enemies until he raced back to London, trying to speak to the queen in person. This could not be tolerated. Scenting his own doom, Essex tried to mount a coup, which failed spectacularly. He was executed. Did Elizabeth know that Essex had been steadily pushed into doing something stupid? We simply don’t know.

She also faced a newly-aggressive parliament, which was determined to extract a price for funding Elizabeth’s wars. Elizabeth found this intolerable, but there were limits to what she could do about it. (Part of the problem was that she’d earlier snatched most of the profits from various endeavours, which had the unexpected – but predictable – effect of reducing interest in further investment.) She came up with a face-saving formula that insisted she’d granted concessions of her own free will – and they were quickly clawed back – but she had to cope with a new reality. She saw herself as the divinely-approved ruler; others, now, saw her as accountable to her people. It was not a comfortable place to be.

There is a question mark over Elizabeth’s decision, at the very last minute, to appoint James of Scotland as her successor. James probably had the best claim, but relations between them were strained. (Elizabeth spoke to him as if he were a small boy on the end of a leash, something that James found infuriating; her refusal to name him her successor meant that he had to look for support elsewhere, which did nothing for peaceful relationships.) It’s possible that Cecil and his fellows made the decision themselves, although nothing can be proved. They did have good reason, however, to choose a king who already had two sons; they would, at least, be spared another female ruler. To modern eyes, this sounds appalling; to them, it would have made perfect sense.

In many ways, Elizabeth was a tyrant, a person who was cosseted in luxury while her people starved. This was far from uncommon in those days. She can hardly be condemned for being no better than the average medieval monarch. The limitations caused by her sex made matters harder for her, although she managed to overcome them and rule – with a reasonable level of effectiveness – within her own country. That said, she also had problems committing herself to anything and constantly overestimated her ability to steer events outside Britain. This is also far from uncommon, now as well as then; successive American Presidents have run into hot water through assuming they could reshape the world to suit themselves. Elizabeth lacked their advantages – modern communications, a secure power base, a military not given to political interference – and suffered for it.

She was also personally abusive to people she felt had failed her trust, ranging from her maids of honour to her men. (Essex nearly drew a sword on her when she slapped him, something that could have changed the course of history.) As she grew older, she became nastier, bullying her cousin (who would later be sidelined after Elizabeth’s death) and more demanding of admiration from men who were increasingly younger, even though the idea of them ‘courting’ her was absurd. But her power was slipping and she knew it.

Against this must be set her achievements. Elizabeth fought a war with Spain, a vastly greater power, and triumphed through a combination of luck and good judgement. She was able to block Catholic (i.e. the Pope) influence within England. She also, for better or worse, preserved most of the powers of the monarchy, while avoiding many of the problems besetting Spain and France. And it should be noted that many of Elizabeth’s flaws, at least in the eyes of her people, would have been regarded as perfectly normal if she’d been male.

John Guy shows us a woman who was a living breathing person, not a figurehead. The book is an interesting read, although not entirely without problems, and I highly recommend it.

More Updates – The Broken Throne, Para Bellum, Me Personally …

26 Oct

Well, I had the third set of chemotherapy treatments today. I felt a little woozy at first, but by the time I got home I was brimming with energy. Naturally, I decided to cook. It’s a hobby that was in no way influenced by the Eternal Emperor. (There’s a specifically specific denial for you.) There will probably be a crash in a day or two, but for the moment I feel fine. I hope it will last.

The Broken Throne – I’m just working on the final (hopefully) set of edits now. I’m hoping to get it into the publisher by Sunday at the latest, depending on how things go. I’ve also written most of the plot of Cursed, which will be Book 17 of the saga. As you can see, the cover is pretty awesome:

Broken Throne Cover Shifted RGB FOR WEB

Assuming things go to plan, Cursed will be followed by Mirror Image, The Artful Apprentice, Oathkeeper, A House Divided, The Price of Power and Lone Power. That’s the planned set of titles, at least. Emily will found her university, start her apprenticeship with Void, pay her debts, then find herself plunged into the most dangerous challenge of all.

Para Bellum – currently on 25 chapters. I have a good idea of how the remaining 15 chapters are going to go, so ideally I should have the first draft finished next week. That said, I will still be recovering from chemo. No promises. Sorry.

Everything else – put back behind those two <grin>.

My vague plan is to follow Para Bellum with The Alchemist’s Apprentice, then Cursed, then The Pen and the Sword (TEC 15), but we will see.


Musings on Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi Affair

22 Oct

I wrote this yesterday, so things might have moved on.

In order to consider Saudi Arabia, at least from the point of view of Saudi Arabia’s impact on the outside world, you need to be aware of three facts:

1) Saudi Arabia is a state based on religious, sexual, racial and social apartheid. The princes – effectively a ruling tribe, rather than a UK-style Royal Family – hold most of the power, thanks to ruthless use of their vast oil wealth. To back this up, they formed an alliance with one of the most extreme variants of Islam in existence – Wahhabism – an unholy alliance that allowed the clerics to dictate to the people in exchange for unquestioning support for the government. This combination of factors has turned Saudi Arabia into a powder keg that people have been gleefully predicting will explode for the last twenty years.

2) Saudi Arabia has two great advantages when it comes to manipulating the outside world, mainly America. On one hand, Washington has consistently required Saudi Arabia to support its policies in the Middle East (at the moment, Saudi support is vital as part of the US effort to contain Iran); on the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s role as one of the world’s largest oil producers has given it a vast amount of direct and indirect power. By threatening to reduce oil supplies, it can influence its customers; by purchasing support in Washington, it has built a lobby that makes the Israelis look like amateurs.

3) To all intents and purposes, Saudi Arabia is an enemy state.

It is difficult to explain this because the Saudi Government has not engaged in open hostilities against either the United States or the West in general. However, the Saudis have encouraged the spread of Radical Islam and turned a blind eye, at least as much as they could, to their citizens who either funded or went to fight in insurgencies around the world. The Saudis have only cracked down on terrorism when their kingdom itself was threatened, a problem caused – at least in part – by the obvious discrepancy between the finer points of Islamic Law (and the conduct expected of Muslims) and the behaviour of the Saudi Royal Family. In a sense, the Saudi Government is actually quite weak. It is unclear how long it would survive if oil prices dropped so sharply that the country literally ran out of money.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia itself is actually quite vulnerable. They have purchased a vast amount of military equipment from America and a number of other nations, but their ability to use it is actually quite limited. It isn’t clear just how effective their troops are, compared to Saudi’s potential enemies; their performance during the Gulf War, in 1991, was very much a mixed bag. Some units did better than expected, others fled at the first hint of combat. Their attempts to coup-proof their armed forces have been successful, preventing a military coup, but such measures come at the cost of actual effectiveness. I would not care to place bets on a Saudi-Iran War without the US or another major power becoming involved.

Furthermore, the country has a multitude of internal and external enemies. Iran – and Osama Bin Laden and his successors – have charged that Saudi Arabia is a poor custodian of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. Iran has plenty of opportunity to harass Saudi’s eastern coastline and, perhaps more effectively, forge ties to the Shias of Saudi Arabia, an oppressed minority that shares land with many of the oil wells. Islamic State may have been badly weakened, but a Saudi offshoot might have better luck in upsetting the delicate balance of power within the kingdom. And Saudi Arabia’s mass of guest workers might riot, then rebel, against their mistreatment. Alone, they might not get very far, but – again – it might upset the balance of power.

Worst of all, perhaps, the Saudis have only limited control over their own fate. If there is a major drop in oil prices, as I noted above, the Royal Family will be unable to fund its projects – bribes – to keep the clergy and the population at large happy. What happens then? A major economic collapse within the kingdom will have thoroughly unpleasant repercussions for the average citizen, many of whom are unsuited for employment in a modern economy. Oil is both the kingdom’s greatest advantage and its greatest weakness. On one hand, the oil wealth has kept the kingdom from having to build a proper economy – which would require a certain degree of democracy, or at least active participation from the population – but, on the other hand, they have nothing to fall back on. The plans to turn Saudi Arabia into a modern state are, unless there are fundamental changes within the kingdom’s social structure, doomed.

Over the last few days, the world has been rocked by the suggestion – perhaps true, perhaps not – that Saudi Arabian agents murdered a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey. It is unclear what actually happened. Saudi Arabia, according to some reports, is calling the whole incident a ‘rogue operation’ and ‘a terrible mistake,’ which is what you say when the operation goes spectacularly wrong. (I think that, whatever happened, the Saudis have not yet figured out what they want to tell the world.) This has created a number of serious problems for both the Saudis themselves and Washington, as Khashoggi was resident in America when he was murdered. President Trump will need to figure out how to respond.

The problem, as I see it, is that there is very little Trump can actually do.

A state’s freedom to act in a manner other states might not like is based on two factors: it’s ability to push its interests through military force and, just as importantly, how much the other states need its active cooperation. On the face of it, Saudi Arabia is no match for the American military; however, practically speaking, the US is unlikely to be interested in bombing or invading, let alone occupying, Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, it has considerable ability to impede America’s operations in the Middle East – and, indeed, to make a mess of American politics. Could the US continue to contain Iran without Saudi cooperation? I suspect the Saudis are hoping for a great deal of shouting, but not much actual action.

Considered in isolation, it should be easy to pressure Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is not isolated.

This is pretty much a no-win situation for President Trump. If he does nothing, he will be accused of …well, doing nothing; if he does something and sets off the powder keg, he will be accused of blundering. And Khashoggi himself was a deeply dubious character, with links to international terrorists. He is not the sort of person many people would wish to pay a steep price to avenge. The situation may well be unsolvable, at least from Trump’s point of view. His willingness to pretend to believe Saudi statements may stem from an awareness that the best he can hope for is a handful of cosmetic motions that will be, in practical terms, meaningless.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has relatively little manoeuvring room. The prospect of sanctions is unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm, even though the world has a vast appetite for oil. They can be pressured, particularly if Congress forces Trump’s hand; they can be cut off from international financial networks and suchlike that will do immense damage. But, at the same time, they cannot afford to look weak in front of their people. These are not the times when they could afford to delay the announcement of Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait for several days. Supine surrender will encourage their enemies inside and outside the country. I suspect that a number of people will be executed – some of them may even have had something to do with the murder – and Saudi will insist that everyone involved has been punished. It will be difficult to come up with a convincing story, or at a narrative that doesn’t have too many plot holes, but they’ll think of something. And outsiders will pretend to believe them.

The greatest failure of both Bush and Obama was not invading Iraq, nor pulling out of Iraq way too soon; no, it was the failure to do something about the oil weapon. Bush may have hoped to bring Iraqi oil online, thus weakening Saudi Arabia’s ability to use the oil weapon (and accounting for Saudi’s opposition to the war), but this was largely unsuccessful. Instead, both Presidents should have focused on finding a more permanent solution to the problem. A Manhattan Project should have been launched, one instructed to find a new – and cheap – source of energy. Vast rewards should have been offered to the corporation who cracked the secret of cold fusion, or devised an electric car that was actually cost-effective, or built a working SSTO so we could construct solar power satellites in space … Trump may well live up to his bragging if he starts such a project and it actually finds something that can be turned into workable hardware within the next decade.

But, for the moment, we will find it hard to put pressure on Saudi Arabia. And that means, I suspect, that we will have to wait nervously for the powder keg to finally explode.

Musings on Heritage

18 Oct

Same as the last one <grin>

One of Donald Trump’s greatest strengths is his uncanny ability to pick out an opponent’s weak points and attack them relentlessly. Hilary Clinton had enough political baggage to fill a dozen freight trains – Donald Trump made sure we all remembered that ‘Crooked Hilary’ was, de facto if not de jure, a crook. It worked. One should not underestimate Trump just because one dislikes him.

When it comes to Elizabeth Warren, Trump had every reason to remind his supporters – and everyone sitting on the fence – that she had falsely claimed Native American ancestry until it was no longer expedient to do so. This had two great advantages. First, if Warren had lied about something as minor as her ancestry, what else might she lie about? Second, as many of Trump’s supporters – and the fence-sitters – loathe the very concept of Affirmative Action as they see themselves as being pushed out by racial and sexual quotas, it was a reminder that Warren was very definitely not one of them. She had an unfair advantage and used it ruthlessly. This was made worse – like the controversy over Obama’s birth certificate – by Warren’s refusal to take a DNA test, even though Trump offered to donate a million dollars to charity if she did so. This was, of course, a gamble on Trump’s part … but an understandable one. Warren could have laid the matter to rest at any moment by taking a DNA test. Why would she not unless she had something to hide?

A few days ago, she did take the test. And the results have been … mixed.

Warren and her supporters claim that the results vindicate her. She does have a non-white ancestor in her family tree. However, others – including CNN, which is hardly staffed by Trump’s supporters – pointed out a number of issues with the test. At best, Warren is 1/64th non-white; at worst, 1/1024th. If we declare that this makes her Native American, then we must declare that a sizable percentage of the American population is also Native American … and, one might reasonably ask, at which point do ‘Native Americans’ stop being a minority?

There are a number of other issues with the DNA test (and her ancestry in general) that should be noted. As I understand it, Warren was not compared to either Native American DNA in general or Cherokee DNA in particular. The tribes have worked hard to discourage the collection of DNA samples. The test, therefore, is unreliable by definition. Worse, an assessment of Warren’s ancestry reveals that one of her ancestors took part in the forcible relocation of the Cherokees from their ancestral lands. If Warren can claim an advantage from having a Native American ancestor, should she not also be hampered by having an ancestor who persecuted said Native Americans?

(The sad irony of the whole affair is that many people, myself included, would not either praise or condemn Warren – or anyone – for being lucky or unlucky in her choice of ancestors.)

The Cherokees themselves have also weighed in, pointing out – rightly – that Warren is not a registered member of the tribe. Nor has she lived as a Native American. I don’t care to get into a discussion of heritage versus upbringing, and I have difficulties understanding the rules about who counts and who doesn’t, but I do tend to assume that the Cherokees know what they’re talking about. If they do not accept Warren as culturally Cherokee, or at least having some Cherokee blood, why should anyone else?

We live in a world where we are obliged to accept that a biological male is actually a female, if he chooses to self-identify as such. But the rules governing who can be what are arcane – and change so often – that it’s difficult to tell who should be taken seriously. If a man can be accepted as a woman, and anyone who says otherwise persecuted into the fiery depths of internet hell, why can’t a white woman be accepted as a black woman? Why can’t Warren be accepted as a Native American?

One possible answer, of course, is that if anyone could do it, anyone could claim the advantages that go with it. Warren is accused of doing just that, when she claimed Native American blood to aid her entry into Harvard. Another possibility is that is cheapens the experiences of the real [whatever]. If someone embraces an identity that comes with a social cost – or we are told comes with a social cost – is there actually a social cost at all?

But all of this pales next to something a little more important.

I have nothing, but contempt for someone who trades on an unfair advantage (i.e. one that is not available to everyone) to gain an edge. If I lose out to someone who has an engineering degree I could have earned for myself, if I had bothered, I’m not going to resent it; if I lose out to someone who claims to have something I literally cannot match, no matter what I do, I am going to resent it. Trump’s attacks on Warren – and Affinitive Action in general – were so successful because many of his supporters did resent it. Some saw it as pushing them out; others, perhaps with more reason, saw it as weakening their futures.

But, at the same time, I can understand the dilemma facing the young Warren. She wanted – she needed – to get as good an education as she could. Harvard is more than just a fancy name on one’s resume; it’s a chance to rub shoulders with well-connected people who will almost certainly be important and powerful one day. Eight Presidents went to Harvard, including Bush43 and Obama44. Going to Harvard is something that should not be missed, right? How can one blame the young Warren for leveraging every advantage in her arsenal to get into Harvard?

And it is this that proves so divisive. I can understand, even empathise, with her dilemma. But the people who lose out because merit takes a backseat to racial background, something that no one can control, feel otherwise. The constant stream of challenges to Affirmative Action from people who feel they have been held to higher standards than others is clear proof of the growing resentment. Worse, perhaps, everyone who is seen as having had an unfair advantage is automatically assumed to be less capable than someone who didn’t have that advantage. It may not be fair, let alone true, but it is very human.

The blunt truth is that anything that draws lines between racial groups – and every other group – is divisive, destructive and ultimately fatal. Warren is a poor candidate for any number of reasons, but one of them is that a large percentage of the country will regard her as someone who had an unfair advantage – or as a liar. No one had any reason to care about Warren’s ancestry until she brought it up herself. Worse, perhaps, anyone who identifies themselves too closely with one group will be regarded with suspicion by every other group. The curse of identity politics is, at the end, it boils down to ‘me and mine first.’ That is not a recipe for peaceful co-existence, let alone productive cooperation and eventual unification.

And, if we want to progress as a society, we must put merit ahead of anything else.

This requires us to leave the past where it belongs, in the past.

Colds and Being Cold

18 Oct

Well, that bloody cold has not gone away. In fact, it’s got worse – my chest is hurting and I’ve been unable to concentrate long enough on my work to produce more chapters. The doctors can’t do much because it is a cold, rather than something they can treat with medicine – I don’t know what this means for the next chemo.

I’ve been doing my best to keep occupied with other things. I’ve completed my set of Harry Potter reviews and I’m currently writing a series overview that explores what I like and dislike about the books. I’ve also been scribbling notes for future books – I’ve plotted SIM17 and started to outline the Godpower world – and a few other projects I’ll talk about in due time. And I’ve written a couple of political posts, which will hopefully produce debate and new insights (and hopefully no flame wars). But, ATM, I’m just frustrated with writing progress. I know I’m not well, but it gnaws at me.

Anyway, that’s enough whining. Hopefully, the next update will be more upbeat.


Musings on Kavanaugh

14 Oct

I’ve got a cold which is making it hard to concentrate on anything, so – in a bid to jumpstart my writing – I decided to write a political post instead. I’ve done my best to be even-handed, but – under the circumstances – a great many people are going to disagree with me. Please keep the angry objections to a dull roar <grin>.

If I am forced to be honest, I had simply never heard of Brett Kavanaugh until he was nominated by Donald Trump to the US Supreme Court. He seemed, as far as I could tell, to be reasonably qualified for the post. I certainly didn’t see any major reason to disqualify him from consideration. Given the howling and screeching about the prospect of Trump nominating someone entirely unsuitable to the role, Kavanaugh was almost a relief.

And then the accusations started.

The thing that sticks in my craw – the thing that makes the accusations impossible to believe – is that they were held back until it was impossible to investigate them properly. There was ample opportunity for Kavanaugh to be questioned – under oath – about possible dark secrets in his past, but Dianne Feinstein declined to bring the accusations forward until the very last minute. As a stroke against a nominee who was almost guaranteed to be confirmed, it was a political masterstroke; as a piece of political dirty-dealing, it was unmatched. Feinstein, with a single accusation, created an impossible problem for the GOP. If they supported and confirmed Kavanaugh, they would pay for it in the next set of elections; if they dumped Kavanaugh like a hot rock, they would also pay for it in the next elections.

It did not seem to occur to Feinstein that her actions are likely to have thoroughly unpleasant consequences.

Those of us who believe in the Rule of Law understand that we must apply a strict standard of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ The charges levelled against Kavanaugh by Christine Ford are serious, yet the accusation is not proof of guilt. Kavanaugh does not (did not) have to prove his innocence; Ford and his other accusers (and whoever happened to be ordered to investigate the matter) have to prove his guilt. This is an impossible task. Quite apart from the question marks raised by Ford’s story repeatedly changing, and the lack of witnesses to her tale, the time between the alleged sexual assault and Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings is so great that it is literally impossible to produce enough evidence to satisfy a judge and jury. If Ford was indeed assaulted, by Kavanaugh or anyone else, she should have gone straight to the police. Now, it is impossible to prove anything. No responsible prosecutor would take the case. And no responsible politician would turn such a weak accusation into a weapon. It says a great deal about Feinstein that she chose to do just that.

In the short term, Kavanaugh’s enemies had two lines of attack. On one hand, Kavanaugh was a sexual predator (the absence of proof did not deter them) and therefore should not be confirmed; on the other, Kavanaugh’s openly-displayed anger was proof that he lacked the temperament to sit on the Supreme Court. Open-minded people, devoted to the Rule of Law, recoiled in disgust. There was, on one hand, an understanding that Kavanaugh had not been proven guilty, that he could not be proven guilty; on the other hand, there was an understanding that Kavanaugh had every right to be angry. And, on the gripping hand, there was an understanding that Kavanaugh was being held to an impossible standard. The suggestions that Kavanaugh drank to excess during his student days is meaningless to his conduct today. Who could possibly survive having events from thirty years ago dragged up and used in evidence against them?

I do not know if Ford was genuinely assaulted. I do know that none of the charges levelled against Kavanaugh are particularly creditable. There is simply no proof.

Kavanaugh’s supporters, as I said above, were placed in an interesting position. They simply could not win – it seemed. If evidence actually surfaced that Kavanaugh was guilty, they would be branded guilty by association. (The simple fact that they had chosen to support Kavanaugh based on what they knew at the time would not, of course, be mentioned.) But they had to win. They had to show Feinstein and her ilk that such tactics would not work, that they would rebound badly on the Democrats. Let’s be honest here. Donald Trump was elected, as I have noted before, at least in part because the GOP base was sick of watching their elected representatives surrender whenever they were accused of everything from racism to sexism. A failure to support Kavanaugh meant incurring the anger of the GOP base, which would be disastrous. They therefore had to confirm Kavanaugh.

Some people – Jordan Peterson, most notably – suggested that Kavanaugh should be confirmed, then resign. This suggestion brought scorn from a great many quarters, as he noted himself, but there was some merit to it. An understandably embittered Kavanaugh might put the chance to hurt the Democrats ahead of actual justice, if asked to rule on one of their Sacred Cows. I certainly wouldn’t care to have Kavanaugh as my judge, were I Dianne Feinstein! There is no way he could be considered impartial in such circumstances. However, however many advantages it would bring, the resignation would certainly be seen as an admission of guilt. Kavanaugh has to sit on the bench if the GOP base was to be satisfied. Anything less would be considered a betrayal.

And yet, Kavanaugh’s reputation will be forever overshadowed by a charge that – as far as anyone can tell – is completely unjustified.

But it won’t stop there. The long-term consequences will be unpleasant.

One of the problems, as many commenters have pointed out, is that #METOO has become politicized. Worse, it has been turned into a weapon against the GOP and, by and large, the GOP alone. The charges against Bill Clinton and Keith Ellison are far more creditable than anything levelled at Kavanaugh, yet the Democrats – by and large – ignore them. If Kavanaugh can face rumination because of an unproven decades-old charge, why not Clinton and Ellison? Why should anyone take one set of allegations seriously when others have simply been ignored? The media spent more time having hysterics over Kavanaugh than investigating more serious complaints.

More seriously, it should be noted, is the development of a conceptual superweapon – and an entirely understandable response.

A conceptual superweapon, according to an article I read a few months ago (which seems to have disappeared from the web), is a social attitude that can be used against you. To use a simple example, pretend you’re a Muslim who hears someone say ‘all Muslims are terrorists.’ This statement will anger you – and you will not want to leave it unchallenged, because you are a Muslim. If all Muslims are terrorists, then you’re a terrorist too. And someone will use this against you.

This is why everyone from PETA to CAIR spends so much time defending the undefendable. They dare not allow a conceptual superweapon to be built against them.

This creates obvious problems for any group. If they cannot concede that some of their people are bad apples, because their enemies will use the suggestion that some of their people are bad apples to imply that all of their people are bad apples. This is perfectly understandable. But, at the same time, this creates a further problem. The mere act of defending the undefendable is, in itself, undefendable. By failing to strike a balance between the need to remove the bad apples and, at the same time, defending the entire group, the entire group is condemned. The rise of identity politics has only made that worse.

The Left built a conceptual superweapon against the Right when it ensured that any charges of racism (and sexism, etc) were effectively career-ending. This worked, at least in part, because the Right had fewer qualms about kicking out unsuitable people (while the Left firmly believed that ‘there are no enemies to the Left.’) However, the Left was unwilling to let the matter go. Having found a weapon that constantly weakened the GOP, they used it again and again. And the GOP allowed itself, like Charlie Brown, to be lured into kicking that football again and again, only to have it snatched away by Lucy.

This also provoked an angry and embittered reaction from the Right. The GOP base was so desperate for a leader – and so divorced from the GOP elite, which they saw as cowards – that they threw themselves behind Donald Trump. And why should they not?

More significantly, they started to automatically dismiss charges of racism and other such issues. If one charge of racism was clearly spurious, then all charges of racism were clearly spurious. (Etc, etc.) They saw that charges of racism were being used against them, so they learnt to dismiss them. Worse, they became aware of political dirty tricks – and learnt to dismiss them too. Trump steamrollered over charges that would wreck a more conventional political campaign because his backers had heard them so many times before that they simply rolled their eyes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you happen to believe that Trump is a fascist, and you’re looking for someone to blame for his election, look at all the idiots who cried wolf …

The Kavanaugh Affair has created another set of conceptual superweapons and counter-superweapons. On one hand, charges against candidates for important posts will simply not be believed; on the other, given how many politicians have engaged in improper behaviour, it is quite likely that a genuine sex offender will slip into high office. On one hand, Kavanaugh will not be considered legitimate by a goodly portion of the country; on the other, how many other potential candidates – decent candidates – will look at what happened to Kavanaugh and decide they don’t want to be nominated after all? On one hand, further charges – against anyone – will be ignored; on the other, people will simply stop believing them. Real victims will suffer because Feinstein has created a climate where believing victims is no longer seen as a sensible course of action.

I’ve seen people online suggesting that the Pence Rule – never be alone with a woman who isn’t related to you – is the wave of the future. They may well be right. It would be unfortunate indeed if women were denied everything from mentoring to promotion because men were unwilling to be alone with them – and how can you build up a proper mentoring relationship if you cannot be alone with your mentor? How can you form a rapport with your boss if he’s unwilling to talk to you, for fear that he’ll say something that you’ll take out of context and use against him? It does not matter, as Kavanaugh found out, that criminal charges will never be filed. The mere accusation is enough to ruin lives.

And this brings us back to dirty tricks. The worst impact of the Kavanaugh Affair, for both Democrats and Republicans, is that it has destroyed any faith in the other side. To Republicans, Democrats set out to smear and ruin an innocent man in hopes of seeking partisan political advantage; to Democrats, Republicans gleefully trampled on women and elected a sexual predator to the Supreme Court. This follows a trend I have noted before, but this time there doesn’t seem to have been any smoke, let alone fire. If one party dares not give up power, as Tom Kratman put it, for fear of what the other side will do to them, what does that mean for the United States?

Feinstein handled the whole situation appallingly badly, so badly that I am inclined to agree with the people who said she knew the charges were baseless (or at least impossible to prove) all along. If she’d brought the matter forward as soon as she heard of it, she could have ensured that it was settled (one way or the other) before the final vote.) Or she could have had it investigated herself, found Ford to be lacking in credibility and simply ignored the whole affair. Instead, she created a political nightmare that cannot fail to have long-term repercussions for the United States.

I cannot help thinking that the repercussions will last long after Brett Kavanaugh is gone.

Slightly Better Updates

9 Oct

Hi, everyone

The good news (well, the first piece of good news) is that I had the second set of treatments last Friday and, so far, no serious ill-effects have materialised. I’ve therefore been able to return to writing, with the aim of completing Para Bellum before the third set of treatments on the 26th. I don’t have a due date yet because A) I might not meet that deadline and B) the editing will have to be more intensive because I had to leave the project for six weeks. I can handle leaving a project for a week, although I prefer to avoid it, but six weeks is a bit much.

The next bit of good news is that I managed to do the first set of edits for The Broken Throne; hopefully, I will get the second set of edits done within a week or two and it can be slated for publication ASAP.

I’m not sure what I want to do next. Should I go for The Alchemist’s Apprentice, which is Zero 5, or Family Magic, which is the homeschooled magic kids idea? What do you want?


Updates–And Godpower Notes

1 Oct

Hi, everyone

Things have been a little better over the past few days – the side effects have started to clear up, allowing me to actually get some work done. I’ve sketched out a set of background notes for a universe that grew out of a discussion with Leo Champion – see below – and I’ve started to edit The Broken Throne. It’s an extensive edit because the manuscript was sent to both editors while I was in hospital, but I am fairly confident of finishing it before Friday. If things go well on Friday, I hope to return to Para Bellum on Monday.

Thank you – once again – to everyone who used the cookie jar to send donations. They will be put to good use.

Let me know what you think of the background, please.

The World of Godpower

For generations – the Age of Ignorance – the natives of Rhyamdine have been blessed and cursed with Godspeakers, men and women who briefly wielded the power of God to work miracles. The Godspeakers showed their powers, altering the course of history, then faded back into obscurity as the power left them. God, it seemed, rarely shared his gifts for long, even with the most faithful. (Indeed, heretics questioned if the Godspeakers were really drawing their power from God; they argued, sometimes quite convincingly, that the Godspeakers had merely found a way to tap into a supernatural power source.)

And yet, it could not be denied that miracles happened. The blind could be made to see, the sick could be healed, the crippled could walk again … indeed, there were even cases of the dead being resurrected by the Godspeakers. A handful even gained the power – very briefly -to alter the course of wars, raining fire and blood on the enemy army. Very few dared to stand against a Godspeaker. Did he not have God on his side?

And yet, Godspeakers were relatively rare … and when they came into being, they never held the power for long.

This changed with the advent of the First Speaker, a Godspeaker who seemingly never lost the power. He was born during an age of conflict, yet was regarded – even by his enemies – as a singularly pious man. His Godpower was strong enough for him to take control of his hometown, build an army – the first Army of God – and start a crusade against the warring kingdoms. The kings, originally unimpressed despite his power, soon found out that they had underestimated him. Unlike his predecessors, the First Speaker never lost the power. Worse, his disciples – the Sinless – were wielding Godpower for themselves. They led the Army of God as it struck out in all directions, steadily bringing the kings to heel. It was not long before most of the continent fell under the First Speaker’s control.

Previous Godspeakers had rarely held the power long enough to make lasting change. The First Speaker could – and did. Shunning the urge to take control directly, he supported kings and princes who were prepared to rule justly and live in peace with their neighbours. It rapidly became a golden age as laws – religious laws – were codified and enforced. Those who might have resented the loss of power rapidly came to fear the people’s devotion to the First Speaker. The clerics who had taken over the schools – and established a range of monasteries and nunneries across the land – had done their work well. The obvious benefits of the peace ensured that even the ungodly had reason to support the First Speaker.

Precisely what happened to the First Speaker is not recorded (official dogma says that he was the first person to be taken into God’s arms without dying). Anyone who might have hoped that his death would weaken the new empire was rapidly disappointed. The Sinless hastily elected a new speaker – the Second Speaker – who proved himself able to wield Godpower without his mentor (although to a far lesser degree). Despite the lack of raw power, a combination of raw ambition and sheer talent allowed the Second Speaker to put the empire on a more formal footing. The Church, led by the Sinless, became a supranational organisation that would arbitrate between the kings and princes, allowing it to maintain a balance of power. It also maintained the schools – and provided clerics for the kingdoms – that ensured the local population remained faithful. As it also collected a considerable amount of tribute, the Church was also wealthy enough to – if necessary – raise an army or bribe kings who might otherwise be reluctant to follow orders. The city of Speaker’s Rest was built from scratch to hold the Church’s senior officials and bureaucracy.

The key to the Church’s power, however, was the Godly Chain. The First Speaker had discovered (or been taught) how to open a link between a Godspeaker and a prospective disciple. If the disciple was properly prepared – purified, in the Church’s lexicon – the link would open and the disciple would be able to wield Godpower in his own right. Curiously, the disciple was only able to wield half the power of his mentor – and anyone he linked to would only have a quarter of the original mentor’s power – but the Church has steadily discouraged inquiry into the matter. Instead, it was merely relieved to have more Sinless who could be dispatched to serve the Church across the empire. (There are non-Sinless within the Church, as it would be impossible to operate a vast bureaucracy without them, but every senior post – without exception – is held by a Sinless, who outranks every non-Sinless he may encounter.)

At the top of the Church’s hierarchy is the Council of Sinless, headed by the [Number] Speaker. The Speakers give up their names when they are elected, as it is presumed they now speak for God; they are simply referred to by title. Technically, the [Number] Speaker is an absolute ruler; in practice, he takes advice from the Council of Sinless before making his pronouncements and decisions. Each councillor rules a Canton, ranging from the Canton of Holy Words (education) to the Canton of Justice (law and order) and the Canton of Inquisition (anti-heresy). Although they are all Sinless, there is a constant battle for resources amongst the Cantons and it isn’t unknown for their rivalry to have a unfortunate effect on the Church’s ability to maintain order. The Canton of Sisterhood, the sole female Canton within the Church, is the only exception. Practically speaking, they are a separate organisation in their own right.

Below the Council, there is a strict hierarchy amongst the Sinless. Archbishops have responsibility for entire kingdoms; they are appointed by the council, something that has led to tensions between the council and the kings they rule. Bishops have responsibility for either cities or monasteries; clerics have responsibility for smaller towns. Monks and deacons assist their masters, but are rarely Sinless themselves. (That said, there are a handful of low-ranking Sinless who have steadily refused higher rank.) The Sisterhood has its own hierarchy – Daughter, Mother, Grandmother, Mother Superior – and, while the sisters are technically outranked by their male counterparts, it is generally agreed that they don’t take orders from them.

Each member of the Church is expected to follow a strict regime. Their lives are very spartan, at least at first; they are expected to eat simple food, sleep as little as possible and have no sexual contact with the opposite sex. Church dogma states that the Sinless are incapable of breaking the rules; non-Sinless who are caught breaking the rules are generally flogged and then expected from the Church. (Oddly, the Church is quite tolerant of a non-Sinless marrying, although it ensures they have no further hope of advancing.)

Outside the Church – and the castles and manors of the nobility – the Church’s hand is quite light, but omnipresent. A marriage cannot be duly solemnised without a priest – ideally, one of the Sinless; a dead man cannot be buried without the last rites being spoken over his corpse. Every man is expected to attend prayers at least once a week; women are expected to pray at home, except during religious holidays, where they are permitted to attend public prayers and take part in the celebrations afterwards. Locals who can afford it are also expected to make donations to the Church – although, it should be noted, the Church has an extensive charity program to assist the less fortunate.

Upon claiming a vocation, a prospective churchman (generally upon reaching the age of twelve) will present himself at his local monastery. (A prospective sister will visit the nearest nunnery.) The local priest will interview the lad, then inform him that he will spend the next year performing tasks of mindless drudgery. If the candidate remains within the monastery for a year – he is free to leave at any time, having discovered that he doesn’t have a vocation after all – he will either be sent to a seminary or dispatched to Speaker’s Rest, where he will enter a far harsher period of his life. Church dogma and writings – the First Speaker’s Words, the Commentaries on Faith, The Nature of Sin and The Essence of Godpower – will be hammered into his head, along with prayers and vast numbers of precedents for churchly action. If he qualifies, a senior official will attempt to induct him into the Sinless; if the induction is unsuccessful, the candidate will be encouraged to meditate on his sins and confess them to his tutors. Small sins may be punished by the tutors; serious sins may result in immediate expulsion. (The Church believes that if you pay for your sins, you rise above them.) A candidate who fails induction three times will be expelled, on the assumption that he is corrupt.

The Church dwells quite heavily on corruption, which it deems a grave threat to the moral and spiritual realm. Corruption is two-fold, the willingness to sin and the willingness to preach heretical teachings. In the case of the former, the corrupt is either unaware that he is committing a sin or unwilling to confess; it is not so much that the corrupt has done something wrong, but that they do not know (or admit) that they’ve done something wrong. A man who batters his wife to death in a fit of rage might be forgiven by the Church; a man who cold-bloodedly plots his wife’s death would not be forgiven. Worse, someone who followed a heretic would be sinning against God himself. The Canton of Inquisition is charged with hunting down heretics and executing them. It also censors publications that touch on matters the Church would prefer left firmly alone.


Despite the two thousand years between the First Speaker and the present, Rhyamdine has developed far slower than Earth. This is indirectly the Church’s fault as it has, by and large, proven quite successful in preventing conflict amongst the various kingdoms. The handful of skirmishes have not spurred technological development in quite the same manner that open warfare did on Earth, although there is constant pressure to develop better ways of farming, metalworking and suchlike. Gunpowder exists, but serves as a mining tool rather than a weapon (although the military applications have not gone unnoticed.) Contact with two extra-continental empires has introduced quite a few new ideas to the continent. The Church has considered a crusade against one or both of the empires, but has been stymied by a lack of enthusiasm amongst the temporal powers.

It would be wrong to think of the continent as being trapped in stasis. The combination of kingdoms, princely states and city-states has encouraged a surprising amount of social mobility, with ambitious commoners picking up sticks and heading to the cities. (The nobility is divided on the issue, with some seeing the cities as safely valves (peasant revolts are always merciless) and others seeing their human capital disappearing into the teeming mass.) The Church itself isn’t sure how to treat the cities; on one hand, the Church granted their independence and doesn’t want to go back on its word, but on the others the cities are havens for freethinkers and heretics. That said, the number of such undesirables is relatively low, as the Church still has a great deal of influence.

That said, the majority of the population still lives in towns, villages and farms.

The kingdoms are ruled by kings, who enjoy the support of the Church as long as they follow orders (and accept the Church’s primacy in religious matters). The princely states are a little more complicated – the ruler is often elected from and by the local nobility – while the cities are experimenting with various different forms of government. The Church is not amused, but does nothing as long as its primacy is acknowledged.


The Church has ruled, indirectly, for nearly two thousand years. But cracks are beginning to appear in the edifice. The slow advance of technology has presented the Church with new problems, problems it has failed to solve. The failure to ban the printing press, for example, has kicked off a whole new range of problems, ranging from people openly questioning the social order to heretics propagating their beliefs to far greater audience than ever before. Trade with countries outside the Church’s empire has upset the balance of power, discontented noblemen (upset because the Church ruled against them) have been looking for ways to subvert the Church or provide quiet support to its rivals. They understand that not even the Sinless are immune to quiet bribery or subtle manipulation.

Worst of all, however, are reports that the Godpower is failing. Sinless who should have been able to work miracles have reported that the power has left them. The Church has been trying to cover it up, while it works frantically to find a solution, but the Council of Sinless knows it’s just a matter of time before the news leaks out. And, with reports of heretics wielding Godpower of their own, who knows what will happen next?

[Unknown to the Church, it’s dogma regarding Godpower is only half-right. Godpower is a reserve of power that can be tapped into, assuming that the would-be Godspeaker is pure enough to handle it. A selfish man would rapidly be destroyed by his own mind, if he was able to tap into Godpower in the first place. The First Speaker was autistic, allowing him greater understanding and control of Godpower than any of his predecessors. The Godly Chain allows less pure minds access to some of the power, ensuring that they aren’t likely to accidentally destroy themselves.

However, the Godly Chain is a chain. If someone within the chain becomes corrupt – and thus unable to wield Godpower – everyone below the corrupt man loses access to the power too. (For example, if Bob inducts John and Sarah, and then succumbs to corruption, John and Sarah will lose their powers too … as will everyone they have inducted.) The Church hasn’t realised – yet – that this is a problem because most of the Sinless, particularly the ones in high office, are rarely called upon to demonstrate their command of Godpower.

This does not, of course, stop heretics from accessing Godpower like the Godspeakers of old.

The exact nature of Godpower is not clear, intentionally so. Is it truly an aspect of God, with the First Speaker a Prophet? Or is it nothing more than a reserve of immense power, with the First Speaker nothing more than a man who set out to do good and succeeded. Like several other religions I could mention, the Church’s empire – at least at the start – was so much better than what had gone before that most people were delighted. It took time for disillusionment to sink in.]