Archive | June, 2021

Book Review: The Women’s War

26 Jun

The Women’s War

-Jenna Glass

The spell they were set to cast tonight had been generations in the making, built by a succession of gifted abbesses who’d seen what no one else had seen—­and who’d had the courage to act on it. It was well known that magical aptitude ran in certain families. In the Abbeys, it was similarly well known that the rarer feminine gift of foresight also ran in families, though only women who inherited that gift from both sides of their families could use it. And so the abbesses of Aaltah had set about manipulating bloodlines based on what they saw, strengthening and concentrating the abilities they needed. A love potion slipped into a client’s drink. A contraceptive potion withheld. A marriage falsely predicted to be unfruitful when the bloodlines were analyzed . . . ​The fate of the world rested on these small acts of feminine defiance.

Brynna Rah-­Malrye had completed the process by bearing Nadeen and breeding her with that repulsive Nandel princeling to produce Vondeen. Generations had labored to produce these three women—­the virgin, the mother, and the crone—­who were the only ones who could complete this epic spell.

There was no turning back, no matter how high the cost or how much it hurt.

By a rather curious coincidence, shortly before I cracked open The Women’s War I read a biography of King Richard II, who – while hardly the worst person to park his rump on England’s throne – was a mess of insecurity and paranoia that led him to make an endless series of unforced errors that eventually resulted in his cousin invading the country, then overthrowing and murdering Richard before taking the crown as Henry IV.  It is hard not to look at Richard’s career and think he must have been driven by his own personal demons, because many of his decisions were practically suicidal.  Given his early life, it would be odd indeed if the adult was not shaped by the experiences of the child, but – when that adult sat upon a throne – his shortcomings became incredibly dangerous. Richard was nowhere near as unpleasant as Delnamal, the main antagonist of The Women’s War, yet I cannot help wondering if he was the major inspiration.  If there was a wrong decision to be made, Richard (and Delnamal) made it.

The Women’s War is set in a fantasy world that clearly draws inspiration from medieval Europe (with some major differences, which will be discussed below.)  Magic is a constant presence, with magical elements that are male-only, female-only and both-genders.  Female magic is regarded as lesser and largely forbidden, outside the Abbeys of the Unwanted; women, in short, are regarded as little more than chattel, treated as property by their male guardians.  A woman can be sent to the Abbeys on a whim, where she will be pushed into de facto prostitution.  Marriages are arranged, at least amongst the nobility, for political reasons; a wife who fails to give her husband a (male) heir runs the risk of being discarded at any moment.  It is, in short, a no woman’s land.

Everything changes when a handful of women, led by the Abbess of the local Abbey, enact a ritual to tamper with the source of magic itself.  All of a sudden, women have access to far more – and different – magics, starting with a shift in reality that allows a woman to automatically terminate an unwanted pregnancy.  As the social and political implications start to sink in, and chaos spreads around the known world, the monarchy sends the surviving women into exile …only to discover, too late, that the exiles have stumbled into a wellspring of new magic, open largely (if not only) to women.  They eventually turn it into a de facto kingdom of their own, posing a threat to the established order that may trump everything the kingdoms have yet seen.

The story is centred on three different characters.  Alysoon Rai-Brynna, daughter of the king (her mother was put aside and sent to the Abbey, allowing her father to marry again), finds herself wrestling with the changed magic and trying to save her own daughters from the wrath of their uncle; Princess Ellinsoltah of a different kingdom finds herself unexpectedly on the throne when everyone above her dies in an accident, then caught in plots hatched by older and more cunning (and masculine) advisors; Delnamal, half-brother to Alysoon, starts to plunge into madness as he loses his unborn child, his hated wife starts plotting against him, his father dies, leaving him on the throne.  The three characters, and a handful of relatively minor ones, interact repeatedly, each clash triggering off the next stage of the plot. 

Alysoon is something of an atypical character, being a widow and mother in her late forties when the world changes.  She is curiously naive as a character, unable to anticipate that her mother would have told the world what she’d done (which was obvious, as otherwise the truth might not be realised until it was too late); she is reluctant to step into the light as the eventual de facto leader of the new community; she is, perhaps worst of all, unable to see the person under her prim and proper daughter until it is too late.  Ellinsoltah is a little more conventional, slowly growing into her new role; she makes mistakes, some of which come very close to destroying her, but she eventually secures her position.  Delnamal is perhaps the most conventional of the three, and a type we’ve seen before in many earlier works, yet he’s not entirely without reason.  Jenna Glass does not make excuses for him, and rightly so, but she does help us to understand him.  A person who is dealing with a colossal personal crisis, even one brought on by his own failings, is not going to respond well to hectoring from outsiders.

The Women’s War is not blind to the problems caused by the sudden change in the world, although – as all three major characters are royalty – it is hard to see what, if any, effects the crisis has on the commoners.  The sudden loss of a number of unborn children is obviously disastrous, as is the realisation altar diplomatic will have to be radically altered.  As more and more newer magic spells start to make their emergence, including spells designed to render someone important or even kill them outright, the world continues to change.  Spells designed to prevent pregnancy can and do liberate women, allowing them to have sex outside wedlock, but this isn’t a cure-all.  Ellinsoltah discovers, very quickly, that she has traded one problem for another when she consummates her relationship with her lover and this, eventually, nearly unseats her. 

It also allows women – and men – to continue research into magic, assessing how the change worked, what the shift allows people to do now, and – for some – trying to figure out a way to reverse the change.  This is one of the more interesting parts of the book, although it does raise the question of precisely why no one thought to investigate female magic more closelybeforehand.  The power to heal is also the power to kill and the implications should have been obvious. 

The book does, however, have its weaknesses.  On a small scale, Alysoon’s daughter seems to jump around a lot in the last few chapters, resulting in a shock ending that feels more than a little contrived.  Delnamal’s development as a character also jumps around a lot, leaving him veering between trying to come to grips with the crisis, then trying to tackle his insecurities, then finally jumping right off the slippery slope.  At times, Delnamal comes across as an indecisive actor, at one point convincing himself that horrific things have to be done and, at others, regretting them the instant it is too late to deal with them.

On a larger scale, the treatment of women and firstborn heirs is largely allohistorical; it wasn’t uncommon for unwanted royal and aristocratic women to be sent to convents, just to keep them out of the way, but they were hardly turned into prostitutes.  Nor was it something done on a whim.  A king who disowned his foreign-born wife because he wanted a son, as Henry VIII did, would have found it harder to find a suitable replacement as the new wife’s family would suspect the relationship wouldn’t last long enough to put their child on the throne.  A firstborn heir would be almost impossible to put aside, as it would call into question the very basis of the monarchy.  (Note that Jane Seymour, mother of Edward VI, died shortly after childbirth; she wasn’t discarded by her husband.)  Delnamal’s father would be unlikely to put his firstborn aside in Delnamal’s favour, even before Delnamal’s character flaws became apparent.  The former heir would become a civil war waiting to happen. 

(This, for example, is probably why Elsa and Anna’s parents didn’t quietly take Elsa out of the line of succession, even though it might have been the best possible thing to do.)

The Women’s War has been called ‘fantasy for the #METOO era.’  This is something of an exaggeration.  It is set in a world that is very different from our current era and still quite different to anything that existed in the past.  It presents issues that are  not entirely contingent with ours.  It avoids some issues that need to be assessed and raises issues that work in the book’s context, but don’t work outside it.  And, in places, the author stacks the deck.  The heroines have a powerful male ally, in Alysoon’s older brother, but if things had been different – for him – he might be on the other side.

The book is not like The Power or Farnham’s Freehold, where modern society is flipped upside down, nor set ten or so years after the change like The Philosopher’s Flight.  It has less to teach and illustrate for us than more contemporary books.  But, as a story set in a changing world, it works fairly well.

You can download a free sample from the author’s website here.  However, outside the US, the book is only available in hardback or paperback.

Why Boys Don’t Read (Enough)

24 Jun

Why Boys Don’t Read (Enough)

OK, true story.

Back in 2003, I graduated as a librarian and set out on what I hoped would be a climb to the top of the field.  (Spoiler alert – it wasn’t.)  As I waited for my final exam results, I set out on a series of job interviews at various schools and universities around Greater Manchester, one of which remained stuck in my mind.  The interviewers asked what I’d do to encourage kids to read.  And my answer was that I would offer books that were popular at the time – the example I used was Harry Potter – so kids would read books they like and thus develop the reading muscles they need to move on to other, more advanced, books.  I even suggested that the kids should be allowed to nominate library books for purchase, on the grounds they were the ones the kids actually liked.

This answer did not go down too well with them.  They seemed to think I should choose books based on their literary merit.  They found the idea of selecting books based on the likes and dislikes of a handful of kids to be wrong-headed, perhaps even counter-productive.  As you have probably guessed, I didn’t get the job. 

But I still stand by my answer.  If you want kids to read, or do anything really, you have to present them with books that actually encourage them to read.

A few weeks back, a friend of mind pointed me to an article entitled ‘Boys Don’t Read Enough.’  The general gist of the article is that girls do better at reading than boys and it tries to offer a handful of explanations, but none of them are particularly convincing.  They tend, I think, to avoid the fundamental problem.  Adults are not children and therefore adults have a skewed idea of what children actually read.  Nor do they understand that children, even the cleverest of children, have a very limited mindset.

You can argue, for example, that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory defended slavery.  An adult might argue that the Oompa-Loompas are effectively slaves, and (at least originally) racist stereotypes.  A child wouldn’t know or care about the underlying issues – his mind would, hopefully, be swept into a world of wonder and mystery that combines chocolate with the sense that bad people get what they deserve.  (He wouldn’t care about the fridge horror in the fates of the four bratty kids either.)  Or you could argue that Dumbledore is a very dodgy character indeed in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (he left a one-year-old on a doorstep, for crying out loud) and the Dursleys are, at best, neglectful and, at worst, outright abusive.  Again, a child wouldn’t care about such details.  The whole story is more about a young boy who steps into a whole new world. 

One can also argue, if one wishes, that these books have little literary merit.  But that doesn’t matter.  The point is that the books appeal to kids.

But, throughout my schooling, I was frequently forced to read books that bored me, irritated me or generally frustrated me.  Bill’s New Frock was supposed, I believe, to teach us boys how different life was for girls.  I found it boring and silly.  Stone Cold was depressing as hell, as was Brother in the Land.  Oliver Twist (the condensed version) was interesting, but it was hard to draw a line between myself and Oliver.  The further the gap between me and the characters, the harder it was to feel for them.  Z for Zachariah started well, but grew harder to follow as the story progressed.  I’m not sure why I felt that way, at the time.  I do wonder, in hindsight, if it had something to do with the main character growing more and more feminine before things went to hell.  As an adult, I don’t blame her for crushing on the newcomer and considering marriage; as a child, it was just tedious. 

In some ways, I think that is an issue.  My mother had an old Girl Guide Annual I used to read.  The stories I liked best were the ones the heroine could be swapped out for a hero without severely altering the plot. It’s easy to say that stories about people who are different promote empathy, and perhaps they do, but it’s also easy to turn those stories into moralistic bore-fests.  It doesn’t help, I think, when people feel forced to read them. 

I think, judging by my experience, that young boys want exciting stories of action and adventure, not tedious lectures or inappropriate morality.  It is easy to blame Enid Blyton for not living up to modern-day standards on everything from race to gender roles, but Blyton died in 1968!  Her books are often simplistic and, looking back at them, it is clear there were aspects that could have been reasonably criticized even at the time.  And yet, what does that matter to a young reader?  Blyton’s stories have clear heroes and clear villains and even the more complex ones are still quite simplistic at heart.  They draw readers into their world in ways few modern stories can match.

Nor does it help when people over-think such matters.  Reams of paper and ink have been wasted debating ‘the problem of Susan,’ in which Susan Pensive is denied heaven for growing up, embracing her adult life and doing her best to forget Narnia.  Lewis is condemned for this by people who think too much and yet too little.  On one hand, Susan is not in heaven for the very simple reason she’s not actually dead!  On the other, more thoughtfully, the Narnia books were written for young boys and Susan, from the perspective of the target audience, is actually the least interesting female character.  She occupies the role of older sister, mother-figure without actually being the mother; she’s the kind of person a young boy would regard as boring, if not an outright opponent.  She’s neither the tomboy-type (like Lucy and Jill) nor the fascinating enemy (like Jadis).  She just is.

If you want young boys to read, you have to offer them books keyed to their interests and tastes – their real interests, not the interests you think they should have.  And that means acknowledging, right from the start, that those interests will be different from both young girls and adults of both genders.  Do not force them to read books that bore them, annoy them, or slander them.  Let them shape their reading habits so they develop their reading muscles, then proceed onwards to more meatier works.  I look back at some of the stuff I read as a kid and I roll my eyes.  Did I really read that crap?  Yes.  I did.  And it helped me develop the skills to read more. 

If you want boys to read, give them books they want to read.

OUT NOW – The Zero Secret (The Zero Enigma X)

24 Jun

A thousand years ago, an empire died.  No one knew why.  Not until now.

Seven years ago, Caitlyn “Cat” Aguirre – the first of the magicless Zeros – was kidnapped and taken to the ruins of the Eternal City.  There, she discovered the dread secret behind the collapse of the Thousand-Year Empire, a secret she knew she didn’t dare share with the world.  But now, with strange sightings and energies emitting from the ruined city – and a darkening political situation back home – Cat has no choice, but to return to the dead city. 

And what she finds there will change everything …

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the links here: AmazonBooks2Read.

Also, download Fantastic Schools III, featuring a whole new Schooled in Magic tale, from Kindle Unlimited HERE.

Snippet – The Prince’s War

21 Jun


From: An Unbiased History of the Imperial Royal Family.  Professor Leo Caesius.  Avalon.  206PE.

It is extremely difficult to trace the history of the Imperial Royal Family – as it became known – past the final stages of the disintegration and the early days of the Unification Wars.  Part of this, of course, is an inevitable result of the wars and their attendant devastation; a great many records were lost and/or deliberately destroyed during the fighting.  Certain factions, particularly during the opening stages of the conflict, believed that it would be better to erase the past so the human race could stride forward into a brave new future, and therefore set out to capture or destroy as many records as possible.  Others simply ignored the danger of historical erasure, and revisionism, until it was too late. 

But a far more significant problem was caused by the newborn Imperial Household’s determination to legitimatise its position.  There were no shortage of academics willing to take thirty pieces of silver – or, more practically, lands and titles – in exchange for creating largely or entirely fictional genealogies for their patrons to use as propaganda.  The results were quite remarkable.  The First Emperor was hailed as the direct descendent of such figures as Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Elizabeth Tudor and many others, ranging from Albert Einstein to George Washington and Joe Buckley.  Links were drawn between him and nearly every figure of consequence, to a truly absurd degree.  He was not only the sole heir to every kingdom on Old Earth, but also lands that simply never existed, including little known fictional kingdoms such as Gondar, Narnia and Wakanda.

This had two unfortunate – and entirely predictable – effects on academic enquiry.  An unwary student, more intent on getting a good grade rather than actually think about the material in front of him, might not notice the inconsistencies and frank impossibilities, such as a marriage between Queen Elizabeth Tudor of England (1533-1603, PSE) and Shaka Zulu (1787-1828, PSE), a marriage that would have been unlikely even if the two hadn’t lived and died nearly two hundred years apart.  A more perceptive student, on the other hand, might realise there were just too many discrepancies to be accidental and come to the conclusion that the whole field was irredeemably damaged beyond repair.  Such students would either leave of their own accord or, if they alienated their academic supervisors, would be pushed out or simply sidelined.  The Imperial University’s administrators knew very well there were fields of enquiry that could not be touched, not without angering their patrons.  What was the life of one student compared to the whole university?

Perversely, the truth is better than the fairy tale.  The First Emperor – whose name was largely stricken from the records, to be replaced by a decidedly impersonal title – was a high-ranking military officer during the early years of the disintegration.  Realising the endless wars were futile – his autobiography makes no mention of the burning ambition that was a mark of his career – he convinced a number of his fellows to mount a coup, seized control of the government and then embarked upon a series of increasingly sophisticated military campaigns to bring the rest of the settled worlds under his control.  He was more than just a naval officer, it must be noted; his skill at convincing former opponents to join him, or at the very least not to oppose him, was quite remarkable.  When he took the title of Emperor, he rewarded his followers by making them Grand Senators.  They in turn rewrote history to make it appear they had always been part of the rightful ruling class.

Whatever else can be said about the First Emperor, he did his work well.  By the time his son succeeded to the Imperial Throne, the empire was on a solid footing and could easily survive a handful of weak or clumsy rulers.  There was enough of a balance of power, the ruling class felt, to ensure both a degree of stability and a certain amount of social mobility.  It should have endured forever.

It did not.  It took years – centuries – for decay to start to take hold, but it did.  A trio of weak emperors allowed the Grand Senate to take more and more power for itself, then – worse – failed to play the different factions within the senate to right the balance of power.  Social mobility slowed to a crawl, the successive emperors losing much of their influence as they were increasingly dominated by the aristocracy.  Many of them lost themselves in mindless hedonism, whiling away the hours with wine, women, song and pleasures forbidden even to the aristocracy.  The handful who tried to reclaim their birthright were swiftly slapped down by the new rulers of empire.  Emperor Darren II was assassinated – it was blamed on terrorists, but the act was clearly ordered by the aristocracy – and Empress Lyudmila was held prisoner by her unwanted husband, then murdered when she produced a heir. 

By the time the Empire entered its final days, the Imperial Throne was occupied – to all intents and purposes – by Prince Roland, known to the public as the Childe Roland.  He was officially declared a great moral and spiritual leader, but the reality was somewhat different.  Prince Roland – the Grand Senate hadn’t been able to decide on when he should be formally crowned – was, by the time he entered his teenage years, a useless layabout.  The only good thing that could be said about him, it should be noted, was that he’d not fallen as far into depravity as some of his ancestors.  It was generally believed that it was just a matter of time.

The Commandant of the Terran Marine Corps, in a desperate bid to turn the situation around, made use of the Corps’s long-held power to appoint bodyguards to the Imperial Household and assigned Specialist Belinda Lawson to take care of the prince and, hopefully, make a man out of him.  She was rather more successful than one might expect, knocking some sense into the nearly-adult prince, but it was already too late.  Earth collapsed into chaos and it was all Belinda could do, along with the prince, to escape.  The Empire died and, as far as anyone outside the Corps knew, Prince Roland died with it.  In reality, he was transferred to a Marine Corps starship.

This was, as far as the Corps was concerned, an awkward position.   Roland was the legal ruler of the known galaxy.  However, practically speaking, he ruled nothing.  The Empire was dead and gone.  The Corps could not recover even the Core Worlds, already blighted by civil war, let alone the rest of the settled worlds.  Roland was an Emperor without an Empire; an unfinished young man who might be an asset but might equally become a burden.  And that left the Corps with a serious problem.

What – exactly – were they going to do with Prince Roland?

Prologue II

Sarah Wilde awoke, in pain and darkness.

It wasn’t the first time she’d awoken in a strange place, her head throbbing as she tried to recollect what she’d been doing the previous evening.  The sorority motto was practically “one evening in heaven, the next morning in hell” and she knew from bitter experience, after a year at Imperial University, that it was more than technically accurate.  She and her peers had consumed vast amounts of everything from alcohol to mood-altering drunks in pursuit of mindless hedonism, all the while doing as little actual studying as they could get away with.  It wasn’t as if the professors cared.  Sarah had heard, from one of the more radical student activists, that the staff preferred their students to be zonked out of their minds.  It kept them from considering how little they actually learnt at the university.

She kept her eyes closed as she quietly accessed the situation.  She was lying on a hard stone floor … a relief, given how many times she’d woken up in a stranger’s bed.  The air stank … she didn’t want to think about what it might be.  Her clothes were rumpled, but in place.  Her body was aching.  Her wrists … a flash of alarm shot through her as she realised something cold and hard was wrapped around her wrists.  Her hands were firmly bound behind her back … she heard someone moan, the sound far too close for comfort.  Her eyes snapped open and she looked around in panic.  She was in a cage, surrounded by cold metal bars.  And she wasn’t alone.

Her memory returned in a flash.  There’d been a protest march.  She’d gone because it was the popular thing to do, not out of any real conviction.  She didn’t understand the issues, nor did she really care.  She’d joined the marchers and then … her memories were scattered, so badly jumped she wasn’t even sure they were in the right order.  There’d been bangs and crashes and flashes of light so painful she’d thought she’d been blinded and then … and then nothing, until she’d woken up in a cell.  Her heart sank as she looked from face to face.  She didn’t recognise anyone within eyeshot, but they were all clearly in the same boat.  They’d all been arrested.

Sarah swallowed, hard.  It wouldn’t be that bad, she told herself.  The cops would realise they’d made a mistake soon enough.  She’d heard stories of being arrested, stories told by activists, that made it sound like a grand adventure.  She heard someone being sick behind her, coughing and spitting to keep from choking on their own vomit.  An adventure?  She promised herself, numbly, that she’d never go to another protest march as long as she lived, not after she’d woken in a cell.  The activists could find someone else to march in their protests.

Someone catcalled.  She looked up and through the bars.  There was another cage on the far side of a walkway, crammed with male prisoners.  They looked savage … she shuddered helplessly, trying not to draw attention.  The bars didn’t seem solid any longer.  She lowered her head, wishing for water … wishing it was just a nightmare, wishing she could wake up in her own bed.  She heard banging and crashing in the distance and forced herself to look, just in time to see two uniformed women marching towards them.  They were banging their truncheons on the bars, waking the prisoners from their slumber.  Sarah groaned in pain as the noise grew louder.  She wanted – she needed – them to stop.

The women stopped in front of the cage and peered at the prisoners.  “You,” the leader said, jabbing a finger at a girl in a tattered pink dress.  “On your feet.”

The girl shook her head.  “I want my lawyer.”

“Hah.”  The guards laughed.  “She wants a lawyer.”

Sarah opened her mouth to protest, but it was too late.  The lead guard pointed a flashlight-like device at the protesting girl.  Her entire body jerked, twisting unnaturally.  She screamed in pain, then collapsed in a heap.  Sarah stared in horror, unable to understand what had happened.  It was … it was unthinkable.  It was beyond her imagination.  It was …

The guard pointed at her.  “You.  On your feet.”

Sarah forced herself to stand, despite her fear.  The guard beckoned her forward, through the cage door, then shoved her down the corridor.  Sarah tried to keep track of their movements, as they frogmarched her through a string of unmarked corridors and elevators that went up and down seemingly at random, but rapidly lost her bearings.  It occurred to her she was being marched in circles, just to confuse her, although it seemed pointless.  The building was just too big.  She wondered numbly just where they actually were.  She hadn’t seen any large police station within the university sector, not on any of the public maps.  But she’d also been told there was a great deal that was never put on the terminals.

They shoved her into a small room and pushed her onto a stool, then stepped back.  Sarah looked up and saw a man sitting behind a desk, his eyes on a terminal in front of him.  He looked bored and harassed, his face suggesting he no longer gave a damn about his job or anything.  She shivered, despite herself.  She’d seen that expression before, on the maintenance staff who kept the university running.  They seemed to loathe the students they served with a white-hot passion.  She had always wondered why they didn’t look for better jobs elsewhere.

The man spoke in a bored monotone.  “You have been convicted of public disorderliness, taking part in an unlicensed political rally and various other charges.  Your appeal has been filed, reviewed and rejected.  The original conviction stands.  You have been sentenced to involuntary transportation.”

Sarah blinked.  It was hard to follow his words, but …  “I … I want a lawyer.”

“You have already been convicted,” the man said.  His tone didn’t change.  “You were caught in the performance of illegal activity.  The state-appointed lawyer made a valiant attempt to defend you and your comrades, but the evidence was damning.  The appeal was unsuccessful.  You have been sentenced to …”

“I …”  Sarah swallowed, hard.  “It was … you can’t do this!”

“You were caught in the performance of illegal activity,” the man repeated.  “You have been convicted.”

Sarah stared at him in shock.  It … she’d heard rumours, sure, about what happened to people who stepped too far out of line, but she’d never taken them seriously.  No one she knew really believed them.  The police were a joke.  It was …

The man didn’t wait for her to speak.  “Your contract has been sold to the New Doncaster Development Corporation.  You will be transported to New Doncaster shortly, once the remainder of the involuntary transportees have been processed.  You may make a choice.  As a young and presumably fertile woman, you may marry a farmer on the planet and assist him in developing his territory.  If you agree to this, the corporation will forgive the debt you owe them.  If you …”

Sarah found her voice.  “I don’t owe them anything!”

“They bought out your contract,” the man said.  “They own you.”

“You can’t own a person!”  Sarah tried not to raise her voice, but it was hard.  “Slavery was banned under the constitution …”

“You’re a convicted criminal,” the man said.  “You have to pay your debt to society.  The corporation has bought your contract and is offering you the chance to repay them …”

“By marrying a man I’ve never met and …”  Sarah found it hard to put her thoughts into words.  “It’s barbaric!  My parents …”

“Are no longer part of the issue,” the man said.  For the first time, she heard a hint of exasperation in his voice.  “The corporation owns you.  You can repay your debt, in the manner they suggest, and the slate will be wiped clean.  Or you will find yourself on contract duty when you reach the planet, which could be anything from working in the fields to slaving in a brothel.  You would be well-advised to accept their terms and strive to make it work.  This is the one chance you’ll get.”

Sarah shook her head.  “I’m not a slave!”

“The corporation owns you,” the man said.  “Maybe you are not legally a slave.  The fact remains they can treat you as one until you repay their debt.  Choose.”

“I can’t …”  Sarah tried to protest.  “I don’t know …”

“Choose,” the man repeated.  “I have no more time.”

Sarah pinched herself.  Nothing happened.  It was … it was a nightmare.  She’d only gone to a protest march!  It wasn’t as if she’d done something really wrong.  And yet … she recalled hearing, somewhere, that Earth was so overpopulated that the sentence for just about anything was deportation, unless one had a really good lawyer.  She wanted to demand her rights, as a free citizen, but … tears prickled in her eyes as she realised she wasn’t a free citizen any longer.  She was property.  She’d been sold to the highest bidder.  Her family would never see her again.  Would they ever know what had happened to her?  Would they try to come looking?  Or would they simply wind up arrested and deported themselves?  Or …

Cold anger burnt through her as she gathered herself.  She’d survive, she vowed.  She’d build a new life for herself … no, she’d make the corporation regret it had ever enslaved her.  She’d make it pay, even if it cost her everything.  She’d make it pay.

“Very well,” she said.  She needed to play dumb, for a while, until she knew what was really going on.  And then she’d find a way to take advantage.  “I’ll do as the corporation says.”

And then, her thoughts added silently, I’ll make them pay.

Chapter One

Marine Boot Camp, Merlin

The woods were dark, oppressive.

Roland, once Prince Roland of Earth and now Receipt Roland Windsor of the 7th Training Regiment, kept his head down as the squad picked their way through the trees.  Visibility was terrifyingly variable, streams of light broken by pools of shadow that made a mockery of his enhanced eyes.  The trees were large enough to conceal infantrymen below, their branches easily big enough to host a sniper or two.  He swept his rifle from side to side, all too aware the enemy could be lurking anywhere.  The mission had to be completed successfully.  He wanted – he needed – to progress.  He couldn’t go to the Slaughterhouse until he convinced his instructors that he could become a full-fledged marine.

Take it seriously, he told himself, sharply.  You don’t want to get into shit because you were woolgathering when you needed to watch for trouble.

He inched around a tree, then darted to the next one.  The mission was relatively simple, they’d been told, but the simplest things were often the most complex.  The training company – broken down into squads – had to make its way through the forest, flushing out the enemy positions before they could rally and counterattack.  Roland was tempted to wonder if they’d been sent on a wild goose chase – he’d heard shooting, yet they hadn’t seen the enemy – but he knew better.  The fact the enemy hadn’t greeted them with a hail of fire was almost certainly a bad sign.  They were probably dug in somewhere further into the forest, waiting for the recruits to stumble into their trap.  Roland cursed under his breath as he paused, listening carefully for the slightest hint of movement.  It was hard to be sure.  The local wildlife was just too loud.  A drunkard could pass unnoticed against the din.

Goddamned insects, he thought.  He wasn’t sure who’d thought to introduce the tiny bugs to the training ground, but it was a stroke of evil genius.  The clattering bugs provided all the sonic cover a hidden enemy force could want.  If only we could get rid of them,

Recruit Walsh stepped up beside him, her face pale.  Roland glanced at her, then held up a hand to signify she should remain behind as the rest of the squad advanced.  They were dangerously spread out, and he was tempted to suggest they closed up, but he knew it would be asking for trouble.  Their uniforms were supposed to make it hard for the enemy to detect them, yet hard wasn’t the same as impossible.  A single drone, orbiting so far above them even his enhanced eyes couldn’t see it, would be enough to call fire down on their heads, if they slipped up and showed themselves.  Better to remain spread out until they knew where there targets actually were.  He nodded to the others, then resumed the advance.  If he drew fire himself …

Nothing happened.  The treeline remained quiet.  Roland frowned.  He wouldn’t be happy if someone hit him – the instructors would be very sarcastic, even if he hadn’t fucked up – but the rest of the squad could unleash hell on their opponents.  It would be better to know the worst at once, he thought, rather than remain in ignorance of the enemy positions.  The training ground was huge, easily large enough for an entire army to remain hidden if it wished.  Roland kept his eyes open as the squad moved up to join him, but there was nothing.  It was all too easy to believe they were completely alone.

Or we’re lost, which puts us on track for promotion to lieutenant and a court-martial, he thought, with a flicker of amusement.   He’d no idea why so many marines seemed to believe their lieutenants couldn’t read maps – his first exercise in map-reading had been a disaster, yet he’d gotten better at it with practice – but it didn’t matter.  There’s no way we can simply march out of the training ground and get hopelessly lost.

The squad continued to advance, pushing through the trees and avoiding the handful of half-baked trails within the woods.  Roland couldn’t tell if they’d been made by animals or humans, although they’d been taught to stay off the paths as much as possible. A smart enemy would have their mortars already zeroed on the path, ready to unleash hell the moment their targets came into view.  Unless … sweat continued to trickle down his back as the trees opened suddenly, revealing a grassy valley with a farmhouse and a pair of barns at the bottom.  It looked deserted, but that was meaningless.  The enemy could be using it as a base.  They had to clear it before they continued the advance.

He glanced at the rest of the squad, then led the way forward at a run.  Their uniforms were designed to provide a certain amount of concealment, but he’d been cautioned not to rely on it.  The human eye was attracted to movement, even if it couldn’t make out what was actually moving.  Roland had heard cautionary tales of defenders who’d been so keyed up they’d fired at shadows.  He’d thought the stories were absurd until he’d been on guard duty himself.  It had worn him down so much he’d nearly fired on a friendly convoy.  And that would have landed him in real trouble.

Roland reached the side of the farmhouse, unhooked a flashbang from his belt and hurled it through the window, looking away as the grenade detonated.  The flashbangs weren’t actually lethal, at least under normal circumstances, but anyone caught in the blast would be too busy projectile vomiting or trying not to collapse to worry about the intruders.  He counted to five, then allowed Walsh to heft him up and through the window.  He landed neatly, weapon raised and ready.  The room was deserted.  There weren’t even any tripwires that might be linked to IEDs or other surprises.  He frowned as the rest of the squad joined him, then carefully led the way through the rest of the house.  It looked oddly polished, for a building in the middle of a training ground.  That worried him, although he wasn’t sure why.  The corps was known for its attention to detail.  The instructors would have gone to some trouble to make sure the building looked as though it had been abandoned in a hurry.

“Search the barns,” he ordered, as they completed their sweep and hurried outside.  “Quickly.”

His heart pounded as they glided through the remainder of the farm.  The farmhouse was nice and rustic, but it might also be a trap.  They hadn’t had time to search it thoroughly.  He checked his threat detector and saw nothing, but it wasn’t reassuring.  There was an ongoing war between the techs who designed early warning and detection technology and the insurgents who tried to come up with ways to fool it.  It was quite possible they’d missed something.  The instructors were ruthlessly pessimistic.  If there was even a slightest chance someone would be hit, they’d be hit.  There was no room for the luck of the draw on the training ground.

Hard training, easy mission, Roland quoted, silently.  Easy training, get the shit kicked out of you on a real mission.

Recruit Singh caught his eye.  “It’s clear, sir.”

Roland nodded, turning his eyes towards the far side of the valley.  Anything could be hidden within the trees, anything at all.  He was tempted to call in and ask for support, perhaps even an update from the drones, but he knew it would be pointless.  They’d been cautioned not to risk any sort of contact until they encountered the enemy, just in case.  His superiors would not be amused if he risked contact just because he needed his hand held.  They’d be very sarcastic.

He scowled as the squad prepared to resume the advance.  His fellow recruits didn’t know him as anything other than Roland Windsor, a young recruit keen to be the best of the best, but his instructors knew who he’d been, only a few short months ago.  Roland didn’t blame them, not really, for having their doubts about him.  He looked back at himself when he’d been the Childe Roland, Heir to the Imperial Throne of Earth, and violently cringed.  He’d been a spoilt little brat, a mindless pleasure-seeker who’d drunk and drugged himself constantly just to starve off the boredom of life … he shuddered when he remembered everything he’d done, to people who didn’t dare say no.  He’d been trapped in a gilded cage and he hadn’t even known it, not then.  He’d been a puppet who couldn’t even see the strings!

His eyes swept the distant hills, although his thoughts were elsewhere.  Specialist Belinda Lawson, a Marine Pathfinder, had saved his life and soul.  She’d swept into his palace and transformed his life, knocking some sense into his head … too late to save the planet, perhaps, but not too late to make a man out of him,  Shame swept over him as he remembered how he’d tried to get her into bed, as if she’d be interested in a overweight princeling who could barely lift his own weight.  And she was dead … or worse.  His superiors – his new superiors -hadn’t been entirely clear on what had happened to her, but he feared the worst.   She would have come to see him, wouldn’t she?  He wanted to believe she would have come.

Perhaps you were just another assignment to her, his thoughts pointed out.  You were surrounded by people who were paid to keep you happy and dumb, people who didn’t give a shit about you.  She might not have given a shit about you either.

He tensed, suddenly, as he heard the sound of rotor blades in the distance.  A helicopter swept low over the hills, heading straight towards them.  Roland swore as he saw the weapon pods hanging under its stubby wings; antitank rockets and heavy machine guns that would punch through his body armour as though it wasn’t even there.  The training brief hadn’t mentioned helicopters … not directly, at least.  The instructors had a habit of throwing unpleasant surprises into the mix, just to make sure the recruits knew their intelligence, no matter how much the spooks vouched for it, couldn’t be taken for granted.

“Take cover,” he shouted.  “Hurry!”

The sound grew louder as he hurled himself into a ditch, near the farmhouse.  His mind raced as he saw Walsh take up position near the treeline.  The farmhouse might have been a trap after all, although not in the way he’d thought.  There could be someone on the hillside with a low-tech telescope, linked to a simple telephone line … he sucked in his breath.  His instructors had warned him, time and time again, that just because something was outdated didn’t mean it was useless.  A pre-space telescope and telephone wire would be pretty much impossible to detect unless the marines got lucky.

He stayed very still as the helicopter thundered over the valley, the rotors chopping through the air.  Insurgents had learnt to fear the ugly aircraft a long time ago, all too aware the pilots could rain down death on them from overhead in relative safety.  It took a great deal of luck to take down a helicopter without MANPADs or other heavy weapons, luck the umpires wouldn’t grant in a training exercise.  Roland gritted his teeth, hoping the helicopter pilot would assume they’d gotten into the treeline before the aircraft got into position.  Between the camouflage and the local wildlife confusing the craft’s sensors, they might just get lucky.

They know we can’t have gotten that far away, he thought.  It didn’t look as though the helicopter was carrying a squad of troops, but appearances could be misleading.  The aircraft was big enough to carry six or seven men in addition to the pilot and gunners, if they didn’t mind getting very friendly.  Roland himself had been crammed into tiny aircraft with his peers several times, during the last few months.  And they might think they have us pinned down …

The helicopter fired a machine gun burst into the trees.  Roland frowned, unsure what the gunner had seen.  None of the shells had gone anywhere near the recruits, not unless he’d misjudged where the other two had hidden.  Perhaps they’d seen a fox or something move and fired on instinct or … perhaps they were just trying to intimidate the recruits.  It might work out for them.  Roland didn’t dare move, which meant they’d be pinned down right until the exercise ended or they were caught by the bad guys and humiliated … he peered towards the treeline, wondering if there was already a line of enemy troops moving towards them.  It wasn’t as if they had to worry about being seen.

He frowned.  He could hit the helicopter with a rifle-launched grenade, if he could get up and take aim before the craft blew him to atoms.  But … he didn’t have time.  Roland knew, without false modesty, that he was one of the fastest gunners in the training company and even he didn’t have enough time to take out the helicopter, not unless something happened to divert its attention.  His mind churned.  He needed a diversion.  If he did nothing, they were screwed.

A plan occurred to him.  He put it into action before he could think better of it.  He signalled Walsh, instructing her to send a microburst message to their superiors.  The messages were supposed to be undetectable and untraceable, but he knew the helicopter would have the very latest in detection gear, manned by people who knew precisely what to look for.  The aircraft rotated rapidly, bringing its machine guns to bear on Walsh.  Roland didn’t hesitate.  He rolled over, slotted the grenade into place and fired it at the helicopter.  It went through the gunner’s hatch and detonated inside.  A moment later, the helicopter rose into the sky and vanished.

Got you, Roland thought.  The boot camp was supposed to be realistic, but even his instructors drew the line at using real bullets and grenades.  The helicopter was officially dead now and would remain so until the exercise terminated.  You’ll be buying the drinks when we finally get some leave

He tried not to feel guilty as he stumbled to his feet and looked at Walsh.  She wasn’t dead, of course, but her training suit had locked up.  She would remain immobile until the exercise ended or, depending on timing, the umpires collected her and put her on the sidelines.  She’d be hopping mad afterwards, Roland reflected as the other two joined him.  He promised himself he’d make it up to her, if he could.  He would almost sooner have preferred to be ‘killed’ himself.  At least he would have volunteered to serve as a human sacrifice.

There was no time to discuss it with her, he told himself, firmly.  She’ll understand.

He gritted his teeth as they resumed their march through the trees.  He’d been told, when he’d been a child, that it was his duty to look after the empire as a whole, rather than the individual people within it.  He hadn’t realised, until much later, that it was a form of manipulation, that one could justify almost anything by insisting it was for the good of the empire.  What was a single life compared to the uncountable trillions who made up the empire as a whole?  It was nothing more than a number, perhaps even a rounding error.  It was hard to argue that a single life mattered …

And yet, Walsh was a friend.  He knew her.  He knew she’d had hopes and dreams of her own before Earthfall.  He knew she wanted to be a marine, that she’d joined the training company in hopes of making it to the Slaughterhouse.  She was a living breathing person, a friend and a rival, a comrade and an enemy … no, never an enemy.  They might have been on opposing teams, from time to time, but they weren’t enemies.  He respected her and the rest of the company in a way he’d never respected anyone, back when he’d been the Childe Roland.  And she was going to be mad at him in the aftermath of the exercise.  She was probably going to punch him in the face.

Which is no more than you deserve, his thoughts mocked him.  If someone had done that to him, without his permission, he would have been livid.  Belinda would probably have kicked you in the nuts.  It was bad enough when you tried to cop a feel …

He pushed that thought out of his mind and forced himself to keep going, heading towards the enemy position.  Time was running out.  They had to flush the enemy out before the umpires called a halt, before … he wondered if he’d be ordered to retake the training section again.  He’d done some sections of boot camp twice now, at the whim of his superiors.  Roland wasn’t sure if they were testing his patience, if they thought he’d tell them he wanted to quit if they didn’t let him complete boot camp and advance to the Slaughterhouse, or if they just wanted to be sure he knew everything he needed before it was too late.  The Slaughterhouse was the final test, as far as the corps were concerned.  And he was damned if he was failing.  He owed it to Belinda to succeed.

Singh made a gesture as he peered around a tree.  Enemy in sight.

Roland nodded, pushing his thoughts and doubts aside.  They’d located the enemy lines.  It was time to make war.  He’d worry about the rest afterwards …

… And yet, as he braced himself for the advance, he couldn’t help wondering if he really had what it took to become a marine.

Weird Story Idea

19 Jun

So …

There are some kids who go to magic school in an alternate dimension – think Whitehall rather than Hogwarts.  Something goes spectacularly wrong and they find themselves dumped on Earth instead.  The good news is that they have magic still; the bad news is that they don’t have enough to reopen the portal and get back home.  They get very lost until they discover, through one of their friends, that they can tap the electric power grid to power their spells and reopen the portal. 

(I have the vague idea that the school’s alpha-bitch will be knocked down a peg or two because her magic is greatly reduced in our world, leaving the harder-working students with an edge.)

The discovery brings forth a new threat – a gang of rogue wizards on Earth, who have been secretly preparing an invasion of the magic world (they’re responsible for the portal accident, indirectly), and they try to stop the kids.

How does that sound?


US Liberates Britain, 1944

13 Jun

This idea was mentioned on a discussion board I visited.  I started to think about it.

US Liberates Britain, 1944

Basic Concept

Britain was successfully invaded by the Nazis in 1940, with the remnants of the Royal Navy and the British Government fleeing across the Atlantic to Canada, but this didn’t bring an end to WW2.  While Italy and Japan sought to snatch up isolated and suddenly vulnerable parts of the British Empire, along with smaller countries like Spain, Turkey and Iran, Hitler struck east in early 1941 (early than OTL, as Italy didn’t invade Greece in this timeline) and found himself bogged down in a nightmarish war against Russia.  Hitler did take Moscow, thanks to the earlier start, but managed to lose it again as the Russians counterattacked in early 1942.  The war seesawed back and forth since then, with neither side gaining a decisive advantage.

Much to Hitler’s chagrin, the US entered the war in 1942 as a naval clash between the USN and the Japanese Navy turned into a major conflict … and US defeat, as the Japanese aircraft sunk the US battleships more or less effortlessly.  Hitler, still convinced the US was a paper tiger, was quick to declare war on the United States, a major blunder as the US was rearming quickly (faster than OTL, as lend-lease wasn’t sent to Britain or Russia) and managed to defeat a Japanese invasion of Australia in late 1942.  The US is also arming the ‘Free British,’ as well as a dizzying array of Indian factions who claim to remain loyal to the Raj, but are – to all intends and purposes – effectively independent. 

The US knows it has to carry the war into the lair of the fascist beast.  It isn’t going to be easy.  Iceland is a US base and heavily defended, but Ireland is effectively neutral (the Irish would prefer to side with the US, but the Germans are closer) and there aren’t many other options.  FDR, who needs a major victory (as well as airbases close enough to the Reich to eventually drop the a-bomb), has authorised the US to prepare for Operation Washington, the liberation of Britain.

Points to Ponder

  • What would have happened to the remnants of the Royal Navy, RAF and army in this timeline.  The navy would have been able to retreat to Canada or Gibraltar, although it is unclear how long the bases would have been able to sustain the fleet without supplies from the homeland.  The army would have lost much of its heavy material – how much manpower could be pulled out in time and how many men would actually want to go?
  • What would ‘Vichy Britain’ look like?  Oswald Mosley is the traditional British Petain (he insisted he would refuse the dishonour, if asked, but that was after the war was over and everyone knew the Nazis would lose).  How much of Hitler’s madcap plans for stripping Britain bare would actually be put into operation?  How many people would collaborate, because they saw no other choice; how many people would do their level best to resist, hide the vulnerable, fight back?
  • How much of the British Empire would remain loyal?  Spain would probably be able to take Gibraltar very quickly.  Italy would be able to snatch Malta – Egypt might be a harder target in the short term, although an Egyptian revolt in the rear might lead to disaster and fights between Jewish and Palestinian factions in Palestine.  Turkey would take advantage of the chaos to snatch northern Iraq; Russia might invade Iran; Japan might target the East Indies and Singapore (at the very least, they’d be able to stop supplies making their way into China.)  India would be harder for anyone to invade, at least in the short term, but British weakness would probably lead to a major power transfer (the best outcome) or complete chaos (the worst).  Dominions like Canada, New Zealand and Australia would be thrown back on their own resources and probably get much closer to the US.
  • How would the German-Russian War go in this timeline?  An earlier start might let Hitler get to Moscow before winter, and a shortage of lend-lease would definitely weaken the Russians, but there were just too many other problems with Barbarossa for them to be fixed quickly.  The Germans would snatch vast swathes of territory, even if they managed to keep Moscow, but they’d find it hard to keep their conquests long enough to exploit them.  That said, they’d probably be able to draw on more manpower from Italy and Spain if the former wasn’t fighting in North Africa on quite the same scale.
  • How would the US develop in this timeline.  Germany would look a lot scarier – Japan too, if the first battles are more one-sided than OTL.  (And Japan wouldn’t have looked to have launched a surprise attack too, possibly impacting the US’s response.)  That said, America is still staggeringly powerful and, once its people start getting experience, they will get more capable very quickly.
  • Ireland would probably snatch Northern Ireland as quickly as possible, perhaps under the guise of keeping the Nazis out.  The locals won’t like it – the Irish might try to keep British troops in place, but this would be politically difficult and likely to upset the Germans.  Ireland would probably prefer to side with America, when push came to shove, but the Germans are much closer.  Will this change?
  • Getting the US army to Britain will be difficult.  Landing will be harder.  If Ireland is a base, a landing in Liverpool might make sense (port facilities); if not, what about Glasgow (quite some distance from Europe) or Plymouth?
  • The USN could run a diversionary operation, perhaps claiming the troops are going to North Africa rather than the UK.


Child of Destiny is DONE (Well, Drafted)

12 Jun

“Well,” Emily said.  “Let’s go make history.”

Yesterday, I finished the first draft of Child of Destiny, which marks the originally planned endpoint when I drew up the overall arc.  24 novels, 5 novellas and lots of little bits of background … I feel very pleased with myself, even though Emily’s story isn’t quite over.  I do intend to get into the fallout from CENSORED, as well as finish Stuck in Magic and turn The Cunning Man’s Tale into a full novel (and perhaps the start of a trilogy.)  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it, at least as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Come to think of it, that’s around 3030000 words!

Anyway, my current plan is to write a short story, add more to Stuck in Magic, then write The Prince’s War (The Empire’s Corps) and then Standing Alone (Cast Adrift II).  Or … I’m not sure what I’ll be doing.  I do have some ideas I want to develop, but I don’t know if they’re worth trying. 

What do you think?