Archive | August, 2021

In Memoriam, Jill Murphy

29 Aug

Before JK Rowling, there was Jill Murphy.

Before Harry Potter, there was Mildred Hubble.

If there is any children’s author who disproves the canard that boys won’t read stories about girls written by women, it is Jill Murphy.  I first encountered The Worst Witch when I was in primary school and found myself enthralled by the stories of Mildred Hubble, a young witch in training with a habit of making mistakes, a certain amount of clumsiness and an enemy in the school bully, Ethel Hallow.  The Worst Witch is simplistic, by the standards of more modern books, but it maintains a certain charm that Harry Potter and many others lost over the years.  Indeed, the simplicity helps to keep the charm.  There are no gender-related issues or shipping wars that can turn readers off the books.  (My review is here.)

I was saddened to hear of the death of Jill Murphy last week.  She was a great inspiration to many other authors, including myself. She was, first and foremost, an entertainer who wrote to please her readers, yet one who grounded the fantastical world of Cackles Academy in the reality of boarding school life, of strict teachers and bullies, of friendships placed under stress, of characters pushed into making mistakes to stay with the crowd and much more.  Her characters are very human and very relatable.  Her work touched the child I was as well as the adult I became.  I wish I had had a chance to meet her before she passed away. 

Rest in peace.

Snippet – Standing Alone (Cast Adrift II)

17 Aug

Prologue I

From: A Short History of Galactic Civilisation V.XXVI.  Alphan History University (Terran Campus).  505PI.

Precisely how isolated Earth was from galactic society, prior to the Alphan Invasion and Conquest of 1PI, has been hotly debated over the years.  The invasion and attendant devastation did a great deal of damage to humanity’s records, as might be expected, but rumours of pre-invasion contact with non-human life forms persisted for several decades following the invasion.  The Alphan Viceroyalty was concerned enough about a number of oddly specific rumours to invest considerable effort in trying to determine what, if any, truth lay behind the stories; the investigation produced little, beyond rumours of crashed alien spacecraft and bodies held in top secret facilities, none of which could be confirmed to exist (or ever existed).  If there was pre-invasion contact, it almost certainly passed unnoticed.

Earth’s isolation from the galactic mainstream came to an end when the Alphan Conquest Fleet decloaked in orbit and opened fire.  The human defences, such as existed at the time, were unable to do more than irritate the invasion force, which swiftly wiped out all mobile forces on the planet’s surface before landing troops to take possession of important strategic points and impose their will on the human race.  Human resistance was formidable, in places, but with possession of the high orbitals firmly in enemy hands the outcome was inevitable.  The vast majority of the human nations surrendered within two weeks of the invasion itself and die-hard resisters found it impossible to prevent the invaders from going wherever they wanted, whenever they pleased.  The Alphans had good reason to believe that humanity would become just another subject race, one to exploit for everything from raw materials to military manpower.

At first, it seemed they were right.  Humans rapidly entered service at all levels of industry.  Many humans had no qualms about taking on the dirtiest and riskiest of jobs, from mining asteroids in interstellar wastelands to skimming gas giant atmospheres for rare gases and minerals.  Others joined the Alphan military and served in various units, fighting to maintain and even expand the alien empire.  It seemed likely, as humans inched their way further and further into the interstellar civilisation, that they would eventually carve out a place for themselves in society.  Indeed, to some extent they did.  Humanity was encouraged to settle and develop seven star systems within a handful of light years of Earth, while Earth’s steadily-growing orbital industry and merchant fleet – primitive compared to their masters, but larger with every passing year – took humans right across explored space and far beyond.  It should have gone on forever.

It did not.  First, as humanity became more and more important to the empire’s economy, they started to demand a say in how the empire was governed.  The Alphans were unsure how to handle the matter and, eventually, ended up angering both sides.  The growth of a representative human government, with very limited powers, bolstered the demand for more rights within the empire, even as it ensured it would be harder to convince the empire to grant anything of the sort.  Second, the Alphan Empire fought two wars in quick succession with the Lupines, an alien race technologically inferior to the Alphans but possessed of vast numbers and determination that more than evened the odds.  It was conceded, in the wake of the Second Lupine War, that only human involvement had saved the Alphans from an expensive and potentially catastrophic defeat.   And it was felt, on Earth, that humanity deserved – now – to be considered true partners in empire.

The Alphans hesitated.  It was impossible for them to concede equality to a race that hadn’t so much as settled its own moon, let alone started to explore multispace, before encountering alien life.  They had a tendency to regard humanity as not only primitive, but foolish.  Unlike many other races trapped in gravity wells, the human race could have climbed out before the invasion took place.  And yet, they were uneasily aware of how greatly they depended upon human labour.  The Alphan Empire had invited millions of humans to immigrate.  If those humans turned into a threat, the results would be disastrous. 

After much debate, they chose to cut their losses.  Earth and its neighbouring worlds were granted independence.  The Earth Defence Force – composed of humans who had once fought beside their Alphan masters – was released into Earth’s control.  The Alphans waited long enough to ensure a reasonably stable passing of the torch, then pulled out of the Human Sector completely.  Humanity was on its own.

It did not take long for predators to come calling.  The Vulteks, a primitive race that had been uplifted by the Pashtali, challenged the human navy and, after convincing themselves the human race was a paper tiger, launched an invasion.  The enemy thrust their way to a crossroad star system, where their fleet trapped and destroyed in a desperate battle.  Unwilling to give the Pashtali any time to support their clients, the EDF took the offensive and fought its way to the Vultek homeworld.  The Pashtali arrived barely in time to save the Vulteks from a brutal defeat, ensuring that humanity’s victory would be incomplete.  It was, however, more than enough to ensure the human race would take its place amongst the galaxy’s major players.  As peace descended, the human race looked to the future …

… And, as five years passed, came to realise the peace was unlikely to last.

Prologue II

From: Captain Thomas Anderson, CO James Bond

To: First Admiral Adam Glass, Commander Solar Navy (Earth Defence Force)

Subject: Galactic Geopolitics


As per your request, I have submitted my formal report to the EIS prior to writing this message for you.  I must warn you that a considerable amount consists of nothing more than speculation, of whispers and rumours that may have no more substance than the claim the Elder Gods are about to return and judge us all for our sins.  My tour of the neighbouring star systems has been informative, as the report says, but not everything can be substantiated.  I have had to leave certain details out of the official report because they cannot be backed up.

We had hoped, despite everything, that the Alphans would rally their people to the cause and stabilise their empire.  It is not to be.  Since granting Earth independence, the Alphans have done the same to three more races, two of which are primitive and unlikely to offer any real challenge to their masters if they decided they wanted to rebel.  From what I’ve heard, the Alphan Empire is in full retreat.  A number of important crossroads, economically as well as militarily, have simply been abandoned.  It is only a matter of time before one of the other Galactics moves in and takes them.  I doubt we could secure them ourselves, even if we had the deployable forces, if a more powerful race wanted them.

It is impossible, as of writing, to get a solid idea on how much military hardware remains in Alphan possession, but I’ve heard rumours that suggest warcruiser losses in the war were far higher than we supposed.  I have been unable to confirm these rumours – and some of them are nothing more than whispers and wishful thinking – yet it is clear the Alphans no longer have the will to patrol the space outside their core worlds.  They have stepped down everything from crossroad custom stations to deep space outposts and, if some of the wilder rumours are to be believed, even evacuating their personnel from multispecies worlds.  It is clear they’re withdrawing as much as possible to their core worlds.

This raises a worrying issue, sir.  Who is going to be the next galactic hyperpower?

It is not an easy question to answer.  The Alphans were the power, as far as they and everyone else were concerned.  They possessed enough firepower to make life difficult for the remaining Galactics, even if they had to fight them all at once.  It was they who enforced Galactic Law, such as it is.  As of writing, going by official reports, there is no power capable of taking their place.   Unofficial reports suggest the major powers are rapidly building up their forces as quickly as possible.  The Alphans have created a power vacuum and their rivals are moving to take advantage of it.

I think, off the record, that the Pashtali will be the major threat.  They took no part in either the Lupine Wars or the Vultek War, save at the very end.  They have long wanted to replace the Alphans as the predominant power in explored space, seeing the Alphans as a bunch of lucky bandits, if I may make so bold, rather than the destined masters of the known universe.  Quite aside from that, they also regard us as threats; they have good reason to fear what we, and our neighbours, will do if given time.  I’m surprised they haven’t put pressure on us already.  Given the Alphan retreat, that may be about to change.

Political suggestions are a little outside my bailiwick, but I do have some observations …

Chapter One

ESS Magellan, Deep Space

There were people, Captain Ashleigh Harlem had discovered the first day she’d reported for survey training, who couldn’t endure multispace.  They looked through portholes at the eerie shimmering lights of multispace and recoiled in horror, or threw up, or started screaming as their minds tried to process something beyond their grasp.  Indeed, the Alphans based their claim to superiority on the simple fact that they found multispace almost homely, to the point they knew far more than any other race about manipulating the fabric of multispace and the threadlines running through it.  It was the Alphans, alone amongst the Galactics, who could drop out of multispace wherever they liked.  It gave them a priceless tactical advantage.

She sat in her command chair and studied the displays as Magellan picked her way through the endless energy surges and gravitational eddies.  They weren’t that far from the shipping lanes, but they might as well have been on the other side of the galaxy.  Her sensors weren’t picking up any other ships, not even patrolling cruisers and destroyers prowling the edge of the core worlds.  Alphan space, she reminded herself.  The days when the core worlds had been her core worlds were long gone.  It was strange, almost eerie, that they’d seen so few ships during the deployment.  There’d been a time when the threadlines were practically crowded with starships, from freighters carrying raw materials back to the core to warships patrolling the edge of explored space.  Now …

Interstellar trade will recover, she told herself.  And when it does, we will need accurate charts once again.

It wasn’t easy, but she forced herself to relax.  She’d been in the interstellar survey service from the day she’d graduated, hoping – against all logic and reason – that she’d be granted a chance to take a ship beyond the furthest reaches of explored space.  Updating charts and keeping a wary eye on energy storms in multispace was important – she wouldn’t have been in the survey service if she hadn’t understood just how important it was – but it wasn’t a chance to plunge into the unknown.  She’d grown up on tales of brave explorers – Alphans – who had steered their ships along previously unexplored threadlines, locating and logging star systems that could be claimed and exploited by their empire.  She’d heard stories of strange sights and encounters within multispace, from incomprehensible artefacts from long-gone races to godlike entities guarding the gates to heaven or hell.  Most of the stories were absurd, the sort of tall tales spacers told when they wanted to make their profession sound glamorous; she’d discovered, over the years, there was more truth in them than any groundpounder believed.  Who knew what might be lurking beyond the next threadline or on the far side of an unexplored crossroads?  She wanted to be the first one to see the unknown …

Her lips curved into a grim smile.  Soon.  The human race was free again, free to explore without the guiding hand of their former masters.  She’d been told, in confidence, that as the Solar Government asserted itself, humanity would start sending survey ships into the unknown, in hopes of finding inhabitable colony worlds or making first contact with new alien powers.  She had every intention of being one of, if not the, commander on a deep space exploration mission.  She’d spent her entire life preparing for the plunge into the unknown.  She was ready.

She put the thought out of her mind as she studied the console.  The multispace topography – one of her instructors had once compared it to crawling across the ocean bed – seemed unchanged.  The random energy fluctuations of multispace barely registered on the sensors.  She was almost disappointed – and yet, something nagged at her mind.  The economic slowdown had affected everyone, with fewer and fewer ships setting out on speculative trading missions, but there should have been more ships in the threadline.  She frowned as she studied the edges of the clear route, her ship slowing along the edge of the threadline as her sensors probed the energy storms beyond.  Multispace was merciless – any solid matter within the threadline fell down to the crossroads and beyond – but surely there should have been more.  It was worrying.

Her fingers danced across the console, bringing up the long-range sensor readings and comparing them to the records on file.  It had been too long since the last survey mission.  The Alphans – who’d once conducted the missions as a matter of routine – seemed to have lost interest in carrying them out, although they’d reacted badly when some of the other Galactics had offered to do them.  Or so Ashleigh had been told.  It couldn’t be easy to have an up and coming younger race offering to do something for you, even if one was grimly aware of one’s advancing age.  Ashleigh’s grandmother had never liked her children and grandchildren treating her as an invalid, right up to the end of her life.  The Alphans must feel the same way.  They’d been masters of the known universe for so long they had to find it hard to adjust to a universe that no longer automatically deferred to them.

And I wouldn’t be pleased if Ensign Simmons claimed he knew better than me, she reflected, with a hint of amusement.  Even if he did, it wouldn’t make me happy.

She kept her eyes on the display as the starship sped on, down the threadline.  It was a routine mission.  She did not, technically, have to be on the bridge at all.  There was no reason to think they’d come under attack – they were deep within explored space – or encounter something her XO couldn’t handle.  She knew she could go back to her cabin and do her paperwork – that was one thing that hadn’t changed, in the years following Independence – or even write proposals for deep space exploration.  Who knew?  The President and his government needed a success, now the lustre of independence had been replaced by the urgent need to carve a place for humanity in a hostile universe.  Perhaps they’d support a deep-space exploration mission …

A low shudder ran through the ship.  Ashleigh looked up, sharply, as red lights flared on the display.  Multispace was rarely quiet – energy surges and twisted gravity waves were far from uncommon, seemingly flickering and flaring out of nowhere and vanishing as quickly as they’d come – but they were still some distance from the edge of the threadline.  They were certainly closer to it than a freighter would dare, yet … her eyes narrowed as another wave of gravitational force crashed into the hull.  It shouldn’t have been there at all.

“Lieutenant Ellis,” she said, calmly.  It was unexpected, but hardly anything her crew couldn’t handle.  They’d trained on the assumption they’d be flying into unexplored and uncharted territory.  “Report.”

Lieutenant Ellis didn’t look up from his console.  “We just crossed a gravity wave, Captain,” he said, in a tone that suggested he didn’t believe his own words.  “The wave is actually twisted, to the point we hit it twice …”

Ashleigh leaned forward as the display updated rapidly.  Multispace was weird.  For every threadline that cut years off one’s journey, there was one that added centuries.  It was quite possible to follow a threadline that linked two neighbouring stars together, only to discover the journey would have been quicker if the ships had remained in normal space.  She’d heard stories of spacers who’d spent a week in multispace, only to discover – when they reached their destination – that years had passed.  It was rare, but it happened.  She’d even heard rumours of threadlines that led into the past.

Although those rumours are probably untrue, she reflected.  It would break causality into rubble.

She keyed her console, sounding the alert.  The mission was no longer routine.  The gravity wave – the folded gravity wave – should not have been there.  The threadline had been located and charted thousands of years ago, back when her distant ancestors were only starting to grasp the concept of fire.  And that meant … she frowned as the rest of her crew scrambled to their stations, readying themselves for anything.  If the last survey mission had missed a gravity fold, what else had they missed?  She had the sickening feeling she was about to find out?

“Deploy two recon drones,” she ordered.  “One to the edge of the threadline, one beyond.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ensign Hinkson looked up.  “Captain, I just compared our sensor logs to the files from the shipping consortiums,” he said.  “There’s no mention of a shift in the gravitational topography, and none of the freighters reported encountering the wave.”

“Noted.”  Ashleigh hid her amusement with an effort.  If any of the freighters had reported the wave, it would have been reflected in her orders.  But the ensign was right to check, even if the last set of updates were dangerously outdated.  The big consortiums were scrupulous about reporting any navigational issues to the interstellar governments, but not all of them regarded humanity as an interstellar power in its own right.  “Draw up the last records and compare them to our current sensor readings.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ashleigh smiled, then frowned as the drones started to report back.  The edge of the threadline was shifting … no, closing.  It was still huge – she could fly much of the Solar Navy through the threadline and have room for a few hundred alien ships – and the movement was so slight it was barely noticeable, but it was very definitely there.  She keyed her console, checking on the threadline’s internal topography.  It looked as if the walls were steadily closing in.  There was no danger – not yet, perhaps not ever – but she couldn’t help feeling a twinge of claustrophobia.  She’d taken her ship down threadlines that had been alarmingly thin, to the point only one ship could pass at a time, and yet … this threadline was meant to be stable.  Why was it shifting?

“Captain, Drone One is passing beyond the edge now,” Lieutenant Ellis reported.  “The signal link is becoming increasingly distorted.”

“Stay with it, as best as you can,” Ashleigh ordered.  Multispace played merry hell with communications too.  It wasn’t uncommon for ships to pick up transmissions that had been sent hundreds of years ago, while completely missing signals from a ship that was right next to them.  “And …”

Another shudder ran through the ship.  “Report!”

“The gravity wave twisted again,” Lieutenant Ellis said.  “I think …”

He broke off.  “Captain, we just lost the drone.”

Ashleigh frowned at his back.  “Was the drone destroyed?  Or did we just lose contact?”

“Uncertain,” Lieutenant Ellis admitted.  “There was no terminal signal, but the drone might have been destroyed too quickly to send one.”

Ashleigh forced herself to think.  The drones weren’t designed for rough conditions.  A lone gravity fluctuation might have destroyed the drone or simply tossed it light-years beyond human ken.  Her ship was designed to handle conditions that would tear a drone to pieces without even noticing … and yet, she was reluctant to cross the edge and press into the tangled reaches beyond.  She needed to know what was on the far side and yet … there were limits to how much she dared risk.

And if I don’t find out now, she thought, they’ll just have to send another ship back to do the job we should have done.

“Communications, burst transmission to the nearest relay posts,” she ordered.  The Galactics should relay the messages back to Earth … if interstellar law and treaties still meant anything in this day and age.  Everyone had an interest in maintaining navigational charts, even races and powers that were historically enemies.  “Helm, prepare to take us across the edge.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ashleigh braced herself as the starship altered course.  She was designed for probing the unexplored and uncharted sections of multispace and yet … it was hard not to feel as though she was making a mistake.  But what choice did she have?  If the threadline was shifting, or closing, they needed to know why.  They needed to know if the other threadlines in the sector were threatened.  They needed to know … her lips thinned as the edge came closer, the starship girding her loins for a plunge into the unknown.  If they knew … what could they do about it?  The Alphans were the most advanced race in the known universe and even they couldn’t manipulate multispace, not beyond a very basic point.  There was nothing they could do, if the threadline closed, beyond rerouting traffic and hoping for the best.

“Captain, we will cross the edge in ten seconds,” Lieutenant Adams said.  “Nine … eight …”

The ship shuddered, again and again.  That wasn’t normal, certainly not in a well-charted threadline.  Ashleigh made a mental note to file a complaint about whoever had conducted the last survey as the shuddering grew worse, the ship’s drive fields struggling to compensate.  No wonder the first drone had been destroyed.  It was a minor miricle the second was still alive and broadcasting.  But then, it hadn’t tried to go beyond the edge.

She gritted her teeth as a low crash echoed through the hull.  It was her imagination, at least in part, and yet … she promised herself that, if she ever got back home, she’d never make fun of anyone who dreaded multispace again.  They’d just crashed into the unknown and … she snapped orders, directing the crew to reboot the sensors as the display fuzzed and blanked completely.  She hadn’t see anything like it since the war, since the enemy had tried to defeat a human flotilla by blanketing it with distortion and jamming pulses.  It hadn’t worked as well as the Lupines had hoped – Alphan sensors were still a cut above everyone else’s – but it had given them a chance to get into firing range.  She couldn’t help tensing.  If that happened again …

The display updated.  Ashleigh sucked in her breath as she saw the multispace beyond the walls.  It was a storm, a raging typhoon of energy sweeping towards her with all the inevitability of an asteroid falling into a gravity well.  She felt silence fall like a physical blow, her crew staring in horror.  They knew how dangerous space could be and yet … they’d never seen anything so powerful and dangerous outside training simulations.  The storm was so vast that … she swallowed hard, remembering stories from deep space explorers who had gone beyond the rim.  She’d thought they’d been pulling her leg, as if she was a credulous primitive who’d thought her world was flat before a more advanced race arrived to show them they were wrong.  She knew, now, they’d been telling the truth.

“Reverse course,” she snapped.  The sensors struggled to cope with the torrent of energy pouring towards them, but … she cursed under her breath.  They couldn’t enter such a storm and hope to live.  “Get us back into the threadline!”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ashleigh cursed under her breath as the shaking intensified, the drives whining loudly as they struggled to get them back to safely.  The gravity topography was growing steeper, as if they’d tried to fly through a planet’s atmosphere only to discover, too late, that they’d gone too far into the gravity well and doomed themselves to certain death.  She’d made a serious mistake.  She knew she’d had no choice, but … the ship shook one final time, then fell quiet.  They’d made it back into the threadline.  Barely.

Her nostrils twitched.  Someone had wet themselves.  She pretended not to notice.  They’d trained extensively for everything from transient threadlines to hostile aliens, but there were limits to how far they could go in training simulators.  They were never real.  How could they be?

“Captain.”  Lieutenant Ellis sounded shaken.  “If my readings are correct, the entire sector is caught in the storm.”

Ashleigh stared at the sensor logs, shaking her head in disbelief.  The storm was immense, beyond her ability to comprehend.  No wonder the threadlines were shrinking.  The more she looked at the records, the more she thought it was just a matter of time before the threadlines snapped completely.  Perhaps they’d reform, eventually … no, newer ones would take their place.  She keyed the console, bringing up the starchart.  It would take months, if not years, for the storm to disperse, then decades for the new threadlines to be charted and cleared for use.  Until then … starships would have to take the long way around if they didn’t want to risk the storm.  They’d have no choice.  Magellan was designed for harsh environments, to go boldly into regions of multispace that would daunt a warcruiser, but even she couldn’t fly through a storm.  There were probably better ways to commit suicide. 

Lieutenant Ellis was still talking, babbling speculation on what might have caused the storm.  The sensor records would fuel genuinely original science – the human race, like everyone else, wanted to know how to travel multispace without the crossroads – and yet, right now, it didn’t matter.  Ashleigh understood his enthusiasm, and she appreciated the story was going to have everyone buying her crew drinks, but she understood what it meant.  If they had to take an extra few weeks, if not months, to reach Alphan Prime … what would it do to interstellar trade? 

Hell, she reflected.  If the storm gets worse, we may not even be able to punch a message through to the other side.

She leaned back in her chair.  “Helm, set course for Ballade,” she ordered.  She’d sent a message earlier, but it was hard to be sure it had reached its destination.  They had to go in person.  “Best possible speed.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Out Now – The Prince’s War (The Empire’s Corps 19)

16 Aug

Prince Roland – the Childe Roland, Heir to the Imperial Throne – grew up in a gilded cage, surrounded by men who wanted to use his powers while keeping him under tight control.  He was growing into a petty sadistic brat until a Marine Pathfinder took him in hand, helping him to overcome his caretakers – jailers – and make something of himself.  But it was too late for Earth and, as the planet collapsed into chaos, Roland and his mentor barely escaped before it was too late.  He was taken into the care of the Marine Corps and given a chance to go to Boot Camp and forge a new life.

But now, unsure what to do with him, his superiors set him a task.  Roland has to take command of a training mission and travel to New Doncaster, a planet on the verge of exploding into civil war.  His mission is to build an army and stabilise the situation as quickly as possible …

… But, for an untried prince in a snake pit, facing enemies on both sides of the war, it will be far from easy …

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon or Draft2Digital.  And read the afterword here.

Updates …

8 Aug

Well … here we are, more updates.

Good news first – I’ve finished the first draft of The Cunning Man.  It now awaits a lot of editing, as – as always – there are a bunch of issues that need fixed before the book goes live.  I’m going to take a short break, now Edinburgh is coming to life again, before starting work on Standing Alone, the more or less direct sequel to Cast Adrift.  I’m sure you’ll agree the cover is a work of art.  Shame about the book <self-decrepitating grin>. 

Also, Stuck in Magic has done very well and I intend to write a second serial – Her Majesty’s Warlord.  I hope you’re looking forward to this <grin>. 

Child of Destiny is still being edited, as is The Prince’s War.  I have hopes of getting the latter up within the week, but we will see.

On a wider scale …

I tried getting into Masters of the Universe Relivation, but I couldn’t.  I’m not talking about the controversial stuff – I just didn’t get that far!  I think a lot of it stems from the 2002 serial being far superior, as far as I can tell from what I saw; there’s also points in which the canon was simply never very well established until 2002.  And the whole first few sections just annoyed me.  Maybe I’m just too old.  She-Ra and the Princesses of Power did a far better job.

That said, I have managed to get partly into Amphibia, mainly the myth arc episodes.  I didn’t really like the early Anne and the Planters episodes, although I think they did a good job of introducing the setting and characters.  Sasha and Marcy are more interesting than Anne though – maybe that’ll change as I get closer to the end of Season 2.  The Owl House hasn’t dropped Season 2 on Disney+ yet, so I haven’t been able to catch up with season 2 of that yet (although I hear it’s a good one). 

Anyway, back to the kids.


Review: Queen of the Unwanted (Jenna Glass)

1 Aug

Queen of the Unwanted (The Women’s War 2)

-Jenna Glass

            “So that’s it, then?” Tynthanal said after a long and resentful silence. “You’d force me to abandon the woman I love to save Ellinsoltah the trouble of having to deal with a rival claimant to her throne?”

            “You make it sound like some triviality,” she retorted. “A man’s life hangs in the balance, although I hope you know I would put your happiness above the life of some man I’ve never met. But don’t you see that the issue would never have come up if Ellinsoltah had a firm hold on her throne? We owe our very existence to her willingness to protect us from Aaltah. If you marry Kailee, we will be assured of Rhozinolm’s support even if Ellinsoltah is dethroned.”

            “Then offer Corlin in my stead!” Tynthanal snapped. “If this marriage of state is so important, it shouldn’t matter that he’s younger than his potential bride!”

            Alys growled in frustration. She understood her brother’s distress, and she wished there were another way out, but she was in no mood to deal with a temper tantrum. “Stop being a child!” she snapped back. “As you well know, he cannot enter into a legal marriage agreement for another three years. I would not want to trust the lives of everyone in this principality on a nonbinding verbal agreement, would you? Even Delnamal did his duty and married Shelvon when he loved another. Are you telling me you cannot measure up to him, of all people?”

            She had the satisfaction of seeing her verbal barb hit its mark as Tynthanal flinched at the comparison. He had to see the truth in her words, and yet he refused to accept them. “So you’re basically telling me I have to take your damn potions or else!” There was a hint of panic hiding behind the anger that flashed in his eyes.

            Alys wondered how many young women had worn that particular expression over the long history of Seven Wells, how many had screamed and cried and begged to be released from unwanted marriages only to have their wishes ignored. Why should her brother be any different? And why did he have to make an already difficult situation even harder? “Yes,” she bit out. “That’s it exactly.”

            “Fine!” he snarled, pushing back his chair and standing up. “I’ll take the ‘or else.’ ”

-Queen of the Unwanted.

It is a sad truth, as politicians as diverse as Barrack Obama and Donald Trump discovered, that it is easy to win office, but harder to bring about lasting change.  The new officeholder rapidly discovers that the devil is in the details, that there were reasons beyond stupidity, incompetence and malice why the previous officeholder failed to have any long-term effects on the world.  It is easy to promise a new heaven and a new earth, but harder – far harder – to actually keep those promises. 

In the previous book, The Women’s War, a triad of unwanted women from the Abby of the Unwanted cast a spell that opened up whole new vistas of magic to women, from a subtle spell that prevented unwanted conception to nastier spells targeted that could be targeted on rapists, murderers and betrayers.  The remaining women from the Abbey were sent to the edge of the desert into an exile that was intended as a de facto death sentence, but they discovered – there – a new well of magic they could use to secure their independence from the kingdom and declare themselves an independent state.  The world, however, is still reeling under the effects of the Blessing (or the Curse, depending on whom you ask) and powerful forces are gathering to destroy Women’s Well once and for all.

Jenna Glass has taken a gamble in this book and centred a large part of the text on two new characters, Abbess Mairah, a cold and calculating young woman and Norah, an older woman, from a different kingdom.  Mairah, the first and only women to enter the Abby willingly (as the inevitable consequence of a revenge scheme), is perhaps the most powerful woman outside Women’s Well, under strict orders from her monarch to find a way to reverse the Blessing/Curse or else; Norah, who took an immediate dislike to Mairah before the world changed, intends to ensure the Blessing remains firmly in place.  The relationship between the two women is poisonous right from the start, triggering off a chain of events that lead directly to disaster as they eventually wind up at Women’s Well.  In a sense, toxic masculinity has given way to toxic femininity and both women play a major role in damaging their own cause. 

The characters introduced in the first book, therefore, have less development than I had expected, as they grapple with the new world order.  Queen Ellinsoltah struggles to establish herself as the ruler of her kingdom, even after she proved she could kill as effectively as any man; she discovers, just as the historical Queen Elizabeth did, that men on her council would work to circumvent her orders.  Delnamal struggles to stabilise his kingdom and resume the attack on Woman’s Well; Alysoon, now the ruler of Women’s Well, finds herself grappling with the same issues that confronted her father and reluctantly forced to admit, for better or worse, that he had reason.  Queen of the Unwanted is very much a middle book in a trilogy and it shows.

Alysoon, in fact, comes across as a hypocrite.  Having spent her early life battling for a marriage that actually suited her, then a sizable chunk of the last book trying to prevent her daughter being wedded off to an unsuitable man, Alysoon finds herself forced to offer her brother’s hand in marriage to Queen Ellinsoltah’s niece.  He doesn’t take it very calmly, as you can see above, and Alysoon doesn’t take that very calmly … which is the exact same problem her father had, when the time came to arrange marriages for himself and his children.  To be fair, Alysoon recognises her brother has reason to be unhappy – and it works out better than anyone has any right to expect – but her father had the same realization too.

Delnamal, meanwhile, continues his slow fall into madness, even though he’s got most of what he wanted (in particular, a heir from the woman he loved before he was forced into a loveless marriage).  It rapidly becomes clear he isn’t cut out for fatherhood, unable to offer any love to the baby or his adopted older son.  His kingdom’s instability, made worse by his poor decisions, make it harder for him to do anything, so he grasps at the straw Mairah offers when they cross paths towards the end of the book.  The result is a disaster that sets up the conflict for the final book.  (It is worth repeating that much of the monarchy described in this series is simply allohistorical.) 

There’s less to say about how the plot develops overall.  The new magics are explored and developed, allowing more research to be carried out.  There are some positive interactions as well as a negative ones, some characters prove themselves to be better than they seem; others, unable or unwilling to give up old grudges or even simply walk away, play a role as events move rapidly towards disaster.  In the end, most of the characters are deeply flawed, because of their society, and their flaws – all too often – overshadow their virtues.  It is odd, in my view, that there are few characters who are not nobility and the ones who are briefly mentioned do not get a chance to shine, at least on the page.

Overall, Queen of the Unwanted is a good read, if suffering under the weight of being a middle book.  It allows everyone to take a breath, before events start picking up speed again; it digs into some, if not all, of the logical consequences of the Blessing/Curse and how clashing personalities can cause disasters none of them intended.  I give it four out of five.