Archive | February, 2022

OUT NOW – Coup D’état

21 Feb

Executive Solutions is one of the world’s most capable mercenary units, a force designed to do everything from providing local security and training to hostage rescue, terrorist suppression and many other operations in places regular military forces can’t or won’t go.  In a world riven by war and chaos, with law and order breaking down everywhere, they are often the tip of the spear, a deniable assert who can be praised or discarded as their paymasters decide.  And yet now, they face a challenge that may be beyond even them.

Kabat has stayed out of trouble because the tiny kingdom’s government has avoided all involvement with the outside world, maintaining its independence and economic clout through careful development, quiet international alliances and the occasional use of naked force.  But now, the government is on the verge of going rogue, of turning the country into a rogue state that will either collapse or find itself in the crosshairs of the entire world.  There is only one hope – mercenaries, Executive Solutions, must launch a coup to overthrow the rulers and save the kingdom from itself …

…And yet, if they fail, they will find themselves trapped, abandoned and left to die.

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Snippet – The Chimera Coup

21 Feb


The sun was barely glimmering above the distant mountains when John, son of John, made his way to the Seeker Guildhouse and took his place in the line.  The two people who’d arrived ahead of him – both young women, hoping for a chance to better themselves through magic – nodded politely, then turned away.  John didn’t take offense.  The town was a very small place.  A reputation could be destroyed by a single careless glance, let alone something more intimate.  The girls might hope to leave the town far behind, and perhaps never return, but they couldn’t rely on passing the tests.  If they had to stay in the town …

He took a breath as the day slowly grew brighter, the town coming to life around them.  It was supposed to be a day of rest – Mourning Day, in which the present day remembered the Cataclysm, was honoured right across the known world – but the townsfolk couldn’t afford to take more than an hour or two off.  The farmers were heading out to the fields, the shopkeepers opening their stalls and workshops … the schoolhouse was closed, thankfully, but the children still had to help their parents.  John had had to bargain hard with his father, to convince the older man to allow his son to attend the trials.  He knew he’d pass.  He had to pass.  If he failed …

The thought was unbearable.  He loved his parents, really he did, but he didn’t want to remain in the town for the rest of his days.  Once, if the older folk were to believe, a person could cross the entire world in a second.  Now, getting to the nearest city was a trial.  His world was small and confining, limited to the town and the surrounding fields.  Magic was his only hope of escape, unless he set out to the Frontier or even the Wildlands.  And who knew what would happen to him if he went west?  For everyone who returned rich, or found a place to rest, there were ten who were never heard from again.  No one knew what had happened to them.

He took a long breath as the line grew longer, nineteen youngsters between eight and fifteen waiting for their chance to face the magicians.  No one knew if the magicians had a quota they had to fill or not, although everyone agreed they sometimes closed the guildhouse without seeing everyone waiting for them.  John had risen so early just to make sure he was one of the few through the doors.  He could pass, if only he could take his place in front of the examiners.  And then …

“Hey, buddy,” a voice said.  “Let me get in?”

John looked up.  Bruno, a lout two years older than himself, was trying to push his way into the line.  John gritted his teeth, then shook his head.  It wasn’t fair.  Bruno was too dumb to count past ten without taking off his shoes – or his pants – but he was strong enough to beat the crap out of anyone who dared stand up to him.  What was he doing in line?  Everyone agreed one needed intelligence to be a magician.  And yet …

“Let me in,” Bruno said.  His dark eyes glinted at John.  “Please.”

“No,” John said.  It might mean a beating – anywhere else, it would – but he was damned if he was giving up his spot to the older boy.  Bruno didn’t have the wit to get out of bed early or even hire someone to secure a place for him.  “Go to the back of the line.”

Bruno drew back his fists, then stopped and darted backwards as the door rattled and opened with a loud crash.  John turned to stare inside the guildhouse.  It was normally closed and locked – the village was too small for a permanent guild presence – but now … inside, he could see a pair of tables, manned by magicians in fine robes.  They looked as gaudily dressed as the distant landlord, the man whose father had preserved order after the Cataclysm, yet lacked his sense of entitlement.  John gritted his teeth as the line started to inch forward, into the building.  It just wasn’t fair.  The old landlord had been respected even by those who hated him.  He’d done a lot to deserve it.  The new landlord was just a brat who’d inherited his father’s place.

“There is a wand on the table,” a magician said.  He was dressed as finely as the others, but there was something in his voice that suggested he’d been born a commoner.  “When I order you forward, pick up the wand, point it at the red circle on the wall and channel your magic through it.  If it works, you will have a place amongst us.  If it doesn’t, return to your homes and enjoy the rest of your day.”

A rustle ran down the line as the first girl was sent forward.  John kept his face under tight control.  The magician had been joking, surely.  It was rare for someone to return and try again, the following year.  There was no middle ground.  One either had magic or one didn’t.  John wanted to believe his chances would be better if he came back, but … the girl groaned, put the wand down and walked away, her dreams shattering around her.  John told himself, grimly, that he wouldn’t fail.  He couldn’t fail.

The second girl made her way to the table, picked up the wand and jabbed it at something John couldn’t see.  The wand glowed, a beam of light darting from the tip to brush against the wall.  The girl dropped the wand as though it was a poisonous snake, the light vanishing the moment she let go.  A female magician walked out of a side door, took the girl in hand and led her into the next chamber.  John burned with envy, even as he was ordered forward himself.  She’d made it.  Her future was assured.  And all it had cost her was leaving her friend behind.

His heart started to race as he stopped in front of the table and picked up the wand.  It felt warm against his palm, magic crackling under his skin.  A wave of excitement shot through him as he raised the wand and pointed it at the red circle, then jabbed it forward.  The magic rose, pressed against his skin … and went no further.  He felt a flicker of panic.  The magic was trapped inside him.  He could feel it.

“Put the wand down,” the bored-looking magician said.  “Good luck with your life.”

John felt his cheeks burn as he jabbed the wand again and again.  The magic boiled under his skin, but refused to come into the light.  It was there.  He knew it was there.  A strong hand caught hold of his shoulder and swung him about, its owner taking the wand out of John’s hand and pushing him to the door.  The magic was still crackling under John’s skin, but …

“Hah,” Bruno jeered.  “I knew you’d fail.”

“Be quiet,” the magician ordered.  “You could fail too.”

John barely heard him.  The magic was growing stronger, boiling under his skin.  He was overheating, the power pulsing violently as it tried to find a way out.  Bruno’s giggles – he didn’t even have the decency to laugh like an adult – were getting to him, fuelling his anger and desperation.  He was caught in a storm.  The power demanded escape and …

He jabbed a finger at Bruno.  The power blazed into the light.  He heard someone swear behind him as a mighty wind picked the lout up and threw him right across the street.  Bruno screamed, then fell silent as he hit the ground.  John felt his legs wobble, the world suddenly glowing brighter as he was suddenly aware – very aware – of the magic all around him.  He could barely stay on his feet.  He was a magician and yet … they’d thought he wasn’t.

A magician took his arm, steadying him.  “Very well done,” he said.  It was the same one who’d dismissed him only a few moments ago.  “Come with us.  There’s a place for you at the school.”

John nodded, stumbling after the magician into the next room.  He felt tired, so tired he could barely keep his eyes open.  The girl who’d passed the test looked up and nodded to him, seemingly relieved she wouldn’t be amongst strangers.  John sat down and tried to muster his thoughts.  He’d passed.  He’d barely passed.  And if Bruno hadn’t taunted him …

The magicians don’t know everything, he thought, numbly.  He was too tired to care about Bruno.  It was hard not to think the lout deserved to be crippled for life, even though it was little more than a death sentence.  They would have let me go, if I hadn’t shown my magic …

The thought haunted him as he drifted off to sleep.  They really don’t know everything …

Chapter One

“Your theory seems sound,” Katrina Amador said, as she sat on John’s bed.  “But are you sure it is actually practical?”

John smiled.  It was hard to believe, at times, that a girl like Katrina Amador could be interested in him.  They came from very different worlds, even though they’d spent the last five years attending the same school.  The College of Wizards – affectionately known as Greyshade School, after the founder and current headmaster – worked hard to ensure all students were treated equally, but some were more equal than others.  John might be a natural magician, one who could cast magic without a proper focus, yet he was still only a blacksmith’s son.  Katrina was the daughter of a proud merchant aristocrat, one who claimed his bloodline stretched back for thousands of years.  And yet, somehow, they’d clicked.

He studied her, drinking in the sight.  They were a study in contrasts.  Katrina was tall and willowy, with curly black hair and a pale heart-shaped face; she wore her student robes as though they were a formal gown.  John was short and stubby, his skin slightly darker than hers and his robes hanging from him as if they’d been designed for someone of a very different build.  He’d always considered the robes impractical and made sure to wear a shirt and trousers under the outer layer, but Katrina had never bothered.  It had surprised him, the night they’d made love for the first time.

“Well?”  Katrina smirked at him.  “Are you sure it can be made to work?”

“Yes,” John said.  He wasn’t fazed by the question.  Magicians were taught to question everything, as part of a long-term project to understand the changes to magic after the Cataclysm.  Katrina would have been failing in her duty if she hadn’t asked him to explain himself.  “We channel magic through focuses, right?”

“Most of us do,” Katrina agreed.  There weren’t many exceptions, even amongst the older and more well-practiced students.  It was just easier to use a focus, particularly one you’d carved for yourself.  “It certainly makes it easier to cast precise spells.”

John nodded, although he’d never been sure of how true that actually was.  He could cast magic without a focus.  In hindsight, he suspected his attempt to use a wand – five years ago – had been doomed from the start.  He’d grown used to focuses in the years he’d spent at Greyshade, but he’d never allowed himself to grow dependent on them.  Katrina was one of the most capable students he’d met, with an intellect that dwarfed his own, yet if she lost her focus she would be nearly helpless.  It was one of the reasons he’d helped her forge a ring-focus as well as an elaborate wand.  Anyone who wanted to kidnap her would take the wand – unless they were complete idiots – but they might just overlook the ring.  And then she’d be able to escape with ease.

“A focus is really just a channel for magic,” John said.  “The magic bubbles through them and out into the world.  It doesn’t have to be anything special.”

“Unless it’s something you made for yourself,” Katrina pointed out.  “It’s certainly easier to use a focus you forged yourself.”

She leaned forward.  “And your spells are less focused” – she smiled at the play on words – “without a focus.”

John nodded.  It wasn’t easy to shape the magic in his head, rather than channelling it through a focus.  Basic spells were easy enough – he’d practiced until his nose bled, mastering the art of channelling without a focus – but the more advanced spells were impossible.  He wasn’t sure why.  In theory, he should have been able to cast any spell he liked.  In practice …

Maybe I’m trying to do too many things at once, he thought, crossly.  He’d learnt the importance of keeping his mind on the task while watching his father, but unfocused magic relied upon the caster being able to do two things at the same time.  And yet, it should still be possible.

“If we can use a wand or a ring or something along those lines to cast spells,” he asked rhetorically, “why can’t we use our skin?”

Katrina made a face.  They’d debated the question time and time again.  Why couldn’t they use their skin, or their bones, as focuses?  They had yet to come up with a good answer, although – John had to admit – the thought of accidentally overcharging and exploding their bones was terrifying.  He’d exploded more than a few wands himself, back during his primary education.  He knew he’d been lucky.  A couple of students had lost their hands.

“It should work,” John said.  The debates had gone on and on without any clear answer.  “We need to know.”

“If this goes wrong …”

Katrina’s voice trailed off, but John understood.  Greyshade expected the students to practice their skills outside class, to the point of encouraging them to cast spells on each other, yet there were limits.  They were brushing against the rules, to the point they really should speak to their housemaster before taking the experiments any further.  And yet, he knew what might happen if they shared their theories with anyone.  The person they told might steal the credit or share the idea to the point they could no longer claim it as theirs.  It had happened before and he was sure it would happen again.  Katrina would be fine, whatever happened.  Her family would take care of her.  John …?

He scowled, inwardly.  His family had effectively disowned him, after he’d accidentally crippled Bruno.  They’d had no choice – and they would have lost contact with him pretty quickly, after his magic had been discovered – but it still hurt.  And what would become of him, after he graduated?  He wanted to be something more than a guildsman, or a courtly mage, or even a Grey Man.  He wanted to do something with his life, something so significant Katrina’s family could hardly object to his suit.  If he made a magical breakthrough, they couldn’t turn him down if he asked for her hand.

And then we could really make something of ourselves, he thought.  Katrina wasn’t her father’s heir, but her family would help her set up a spellhouse if they thought she could make a go of it.  Who knows how far this could go?

He reached for the tattoo pen and held it up, then pressed it against his right palm.  It hurt, a stabbing pain that made him wince.  He’d had worse, he told himself, but this … he bit his lip to focus as the pain grew worse, drawing out the rune on his bare skin.  Katrina watched, her eyes grim.  He’d been tempted to ask her to do the tattoo, perhaps to secure him first to ensure not a single stroke was out of place, but it was important he did it himself.  It would be his focus.

And she might balk at inflicting pain, he reflected, as he drew the final line.  She wouldn’t want to hurt me, even though it needs to be done.

He smiled at the thought.  He’d iHe’d met a number of well-born girls – from powerful families, even if their family trees were fanciful – and they’d all sneered at the common-born students.  Katrina wasn’t like that.  Her family might be rich, but they’d made their money through trade and knew better than to offend their customers.  She’d never talked down to anyone, even the younger students she’d supervised when she’d been their dorm mistress.  John had to admit it made her a better person than him.  He’d done his best, but it had been hard to keep his irritation under control.  It was difficult to believe he’d been just as annoying when he’d been twelve.

His palm itched.  He gritted his teeth, watching the rune darken as it settled into his skin.  It looked uncomfortably permanent, although he knew it would be simple enough to remove if the experiment failed.  And yet … it felt weird, as if there was something trapped beneath his skin.  It felt like a toothache, something so unpleasant he was aware of his teeth for the first time in his life, as if they were no longer part of his body.  He shook his head in annoyance.  There was nothing to be gained by woolgathering.  He needed to use the new focus before the tattoo faded away.

Perhaps I should have risked a more permanent charm, he thought.  Tattoos weren’t precisely forbidden, not at the school, but they were often seen as a sign of low breeding.  But that would have been an unacceptable risk.

Katrina cocked her head, her dark eyes worried.  “John?”

“It just itches,” John said.  “You’d better get over there.”

“Be careful,” Katrina said, as she stood and made her way to the door.  “If you feel uncomfortable, stop.”

John’s lips twitched.  The rune didn’t feel uncomfortable so much as weird.  He wasn’t sure how to put it into words.  He hadn’t felt so unsure of himself since … he shook his head, banishing his concerns.  They had to know, now, if the theory was anything more than a pile of complete and utter nonsense.  If it worked …

He held up his palm, shaping a simple lightglobe spell.  It was one of the first spells he’d been taught, one that could be mastered by a very young student and then endlessly modified to suit any situation.  The magic boiled under his skin, the rune feeling uncomfortably warm as he channelled the magic through the tattoo and out into the wider world.  A ball of light appeared in front of him, burning brightly as it rose into the air.  Katrina gasped.  John looked at his palm.  The rune was glowing, like the embers of a fire.  As he watched, the light dimmed and went out.  The lightglobe vanished immediately afterwards.  The room seemed to plunge into darkness.,

John blinked away floaters, then stared down at his palm.  The rune looked … weird, as if it had been permanently changed by the magic he’d directed through it.  He touched it gingerly and felt nothing, save for a very faint warmth that might have been his own body heat.  Katrina stepped closer, her dark eyes peering at John’s palm.  He let her take hold and examine it, turning his hand gently to make sure it was undamaged.  She’d always been better with healing magic than him.

“Curious,” Katrina said, finally.  “No damage at all, beyond the tattoo itself.”

“Why should there be?”  John grinned at the excitement in her voice.  Katrina was no coward, but she’d always been more concerned about the risks than himself.  “The tattoo is nothing more than a focus, allowing me to channel magic into the spell.  It isn’t as if it was overcharged.”

“True.”  Katrina let go of his hand, then leaned forward and kissed him.  For a moment, they were lost in each other, then she pulled back.  “But will it work for me too?”

John felt his grin grow wider.  “Do you want to try?”

“You have a talent for casting spells without a focus,” Katrina reminded him, as if he would have forgotten.  “I don’t.  You might have shaped the magic yourself and then cast the spell through the focus.”

“Which would probably have destroyed the focus,” John pointed out, choosing not to dwell on the implications of that.  “I think I kept the spell and the magic separate.”

He looked down at his palm, unwilling to admit she might have a point.  Intent was important in magic, particularly when you were only starting your studies.  It was quite possible his magic had responded to his desires, rather than his designs.  It was quite possible … he gritted his teeth.  They had to try again, with a different person and focus, before they wrote their paper and took it to higher authority.  Their supervisor couldn’t steal the credit then.

“Perhaps,” he conceded, reluctantly.  He held out the tattoo pen.  “Do you want me to draw it for you?”

“I’d better do it myself,” Katrina said.  She took the pen, eying it warily.  “The focus?  It has to be mine.”

John nodded, taking no offense as she pressed the pen against her palm.  She was right.  He’d only made the offer as a formality.  A pang of guilt rushed through him at her wince, her face twisting in pain as she drew out the lines one by one.  The rune took shape on her palm … this time, he thought he saw the magic twisting through the lines as she finished her work and put down the pen.  It was weird, like a ghostly rune hanging over the real one. 

“Done.”  Katrina sounded shaken.  “You get to the door.”

“Be careful,” John said.  It would work.  He was sure it would.  And yet, he felt nervous.  “I’ll be here.”

Katrina snorted.  John smiled, despite the coiling sensation in his gut, as he reached the door and looked back at her.  The room was a clear reminder of the gulf between them, a gulf closed only through magic.  To him, the small room was a wonder, a place of privacy in a world where everyone wanted to know his business.  To her, it was tiny, a place too small even for a little girl.  Katrina had once told him she had closets in her family mansion bigger than the private rooms, that her bedroom was the size of the primary dorms.  John believed her.  He’d seen too much of how the rich and powerful lived to think she was exaggerating.

She held up her hand, palm upwards.  “I’m ready.”

John felt his heart starting to race.  This was it.  If the tattoo rune worked for Katrina, and it would, they would have made a real breakthrough.  Their names would rank with Thande and Lombardi and Greyshade himself.  Their achievements would be taught in schoolhouses all across the Free States, inspiring other prospective magicians to carry out experiments of their own, experiments aimed at pushing the limits of knowledge as far as they would go.  If …

It will work, he told himself.  It will.

Katrina started the spell.  John leaned forward, frowning slightly at the way her tattoo rune lit up.  It was odd, something he’d never seen on a wand or a ring or any other kind of focus device.  Perhaps it was related to the light spell … his eyes narrowed as the lightglobe wobbled into existence, a flash of alarm running through him as he realised the spell wasn’t properly focused.  The lightglobe wasn’t a perfect sphere of light.  It looked like an angry pulsing baleful eye, glaring at him …

Focus, he thought.  He didn’t dare speak.  Katrina could not be interrupted, not now.  If she lost her concentration, who knew what would happen?  Focus on …

Katrina screamed.  Her hand caught fire.  For an instant, John was rooted to the spot, held frozen by absolute horror.  The flames grew and spread, racing up her arm and brushing against her face.  He saw her skin start to darken, to burn to ash … the shock jarred him out of his terror, shoving him forward to cast a series of cancellation charms.  The magic billowed wildly, resisting his spells.  He forced himself to think, grabbing at the bedding with one hand and summoning water from the air with the other.  Katrina’s face was frozen in agony as he splashed the water against her, the droplets flashing to steam and vanishing as the stench of burning flesh grew stronger.  John wrapped the blankets around her, heedless of the risk to himself, in a desperate bid to squash the flames.  The blankets grew warm and started to smoulder, then burn.  It dawned on him, too late, that she was fuelling the flames with her magic.  The rune was still glowing, the ghostly image visible despite the smoke and fire.

John didn’t hesitate.  He shaped a cutting charm, aiming it at her wrist.  The blackened mess – it was hard to believe it had ever once been a dainty pale hand – fell to the floor, the rune spluttering and vanishing as it hit the ground.  The flames were still burning … he tried to summon more water, only to find he’d drained most of his power.  It was hard to concentrate, to shape the spells he needed …

The door crashed open.  A pair of Grey Men raced into the room, followed by a wave of water that drenched Katrina and left her spluttering, a moment before she fainted.  The newcomers shoved John aside, then cast a series of stasis spells on Katrina before levitating her into the air and floating her out of the room.  John turned to follow as the last of the water drained away, only to be caught by a third Grey Man.  The masked figure kept a tight grip on him as he marched John down the hall, ignoring the doors popping open and students looking out to see what was going on.  There’d be hundreds of rumours rushing through the school by the end of the day, if John was any judge.  He was too dazed to care. 

His captor pulled him into a corridor that didn’t appear on any of the floor plans, then shoved him into a small room.  “Stay here,” he ordered, shortly.  “Wait.”

John didn’t have the strength to argue, as the door banged closed.  Instead, he sagged to the floor.  Katrina was … he shuddered, helplessly.  Was she dead?  Had the flames killed her?  Or … he didn’t know.  He tried to tell himself that Katrina was strong, that she’d been alive when she’d been placed into stasis, that anything magic could do could be undone … and yet, he simply didn’t know.  He loved her and …

… And, he realised as guilt crashed down on him, everything that had happened to her had all been his fault.


13 Feb

Hi, everyone

This is just a short update, as we’re going off for a short break tomorrow.  The Prince’s Gambit is out, and doing well (more reviews, please <grin), and The Prince’s War is currently up for pre-order in audio format.  There will be a paperback version of both Gambit and The Family Secret shortly. 

My rough plan for the next few weeks:

The Chimera Coup, an adventure story set in a post-disaster fantasy universe that will – I hope – be the start of a shared universe.

Frieda’s Tale, in which Frieda of Schooled in Magic goes home and discovers something very dark lurking under the Cairngorm Mountains.  This is intended for Fantastic School Hols (for which we are looking for other writers, if anyone is interested.  Click here.)

The Infused Man, the direct sequel to The Cunning Man.

-Not sure, something for Fantastic Schools 5(ditto other writers, click here).  I’ll post a thread about possible options later.

Coup D’état is being edited now – I hope to have it up for purchase next week.  Endeavour will be edited shortly afterwards, then I can start laying down the plans for 2 and 3 (plus another Ark story set during the war.) You can also see the audio timetable here.

And feel free to let me know … what would you like to see next?


Upcoming Audio Publishing Dates

12 Feb

These aren’t 100% solid – they can shift, if the narrator is ill or something else happens – but I thought people might be interested.  <grin>

The Prince’s War – March 15 (pre-order)

The Cunning Man – April 19

Child of Destiny – May 24

The Family Name – Jun 21

Standing Alone – July 12

The Prince’s Gambit – August 9

The Zero Secret – August 30 

The Family Secret – October 18


Her Majesty’s Warlord Afterword

10 Feb

This is the draft, so comments would be very welcome.


I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin. I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be – instead of the tawdry, lousy fouled-up mess it is.

-Glory Road, Robert A. Heinlein

It may surprise a few of my readers to know I had never heard of the term ‘isekai’ before someone used the term to refer to the Schooled in Magic universe.  The basic concept of portal fantasies existed in western science-fiction and fantasy writing well before manga introduced the word isekai to our language; a person is sucked into another world, or goes back in time, and finds themselves having adventures there.  Lest Darkness Fall is not the first example of the genre, of course, but it is one of the most well known.  It details both the advantages and disadvantages of an influx of modern ideas and technology into the past, as well as the difficulties involved in doing so and, perhaps most importantly of all, treats the locals as intelligent and sensible people in their own right.  Our ancestors did not have our technology, let alone our moral and ethical insights, but that did not make them stupid.  They were adapted to the world they had, not the present day.

There are, as a rule, four different kinds of isekai story.  First, a person or persons are transported to an alternate world and given a task to do, whereupon they are eventually returned home by whoever summoned them.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a very basic example.  Second, a person or persons falls into the alternate world or time by accident (or thinks so) and has to find a way back to their home.  Amphibia and, after the end of the first season, The Owl House falls into that category, where Anne and Luz both want to get back to Earth, rather than spend the rest of their days in an alien world.  Third, a person finds themselves in an alternate world and either discovers their talents from Earth mean power (A Wizard in Rhyme or The Soprano Sorceress) or that, through an influx of ideas from another world/time, they can carve out a place for themselves.  Finally, and drawing on the article that prompted this afterword, there are stories where the hero, an outcast in their world, finds they fit in much better in their new world.

These rules are not absolute, of course, nor are they exclusionary.  Schooled in Magic fits neatly into the first, third and fourth category.  Amphibia has Anne, who wants to go home, but also Sasha and Marcy, both of whom would prefer to stay in their new world and make it theirs.  Generally speaking, the more fantastic the world, the less room there is for new ideas and social change.  There is no sense the heroes of the various Narnia books ever introduced modern technology to Narnia and the world remains in a kind of medieval stasis from birth to death.  This could also be said of both A Wizard in Rhyme and The Soprano Sorceress, with main characters that – again – make no attempt to improve the world around them.  The latter is a particularly odd case, as the heroine has good reason to do it. 

The article – drawing on The Owl House – that started all this, which I will link to on my site, takes a more cynical view and separates isekai stories into ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories.  The ‘male’ stories follow characters, mainly men, who impose their will on the world around them; the ‘female’ stories follow characters that either find themselves fitting into the new world and, eventually, deciding to stay or work hard to get home.  Their goals are often smaller and they change to fit in, rather than forcing the world to adapt to them; the article argues that Luz and (the presumably human) Emperor Belos are foils, in that Luz has no interest in imposing her will on the Boiling Isles, while Belos very definitely did just that.

This misses, in my opinion, a fundamental point.  Luz did not ever have to impose her will on anyone.  She found safety fairly easily and could, at least until the end of the season, return home any moment she liked.  She had room to breathe, to make friends and discover her talents and build a life for herself.  Belos may not have had any of those things.  He may have found himself trapped in a world that would kill him, if he didn’t take control of his surroundings, and eventually became the effective ruler of the known world.  The relative safety Luz found – relative, because the Boiling Isles are still a death trap for the unwary – may be due to Belos, a point acknowledged in one of the episodes.  Belos may be bad, and there is no disputing the fact he’s a tyrant, but the Savage Ages were worse.

I think this is true of a great many ‘male’ isekai stories.  Lest Darkness Fall had a hero who had to either introduce new technology or find himself being caught up and probably killed in the chaos that, in our world, destroyed Rome.  1632 and Island in the Sea of Time have protagonists who must either change the world around them, or risk being destroyed by the locals.  The Axis of Time books feature warships from the future, trapped in the past.  How can they escape the world around them?  What choice do they have, but to intervene?

Amphibia, in fact, seems to be both ‘male’ and ‘female.’  Anne finds herself in a place of relative safety – again, the world is something of a death trap – and she can work towards fitting in and getting herself home.  Sasha, by contrast, finds herself in a place where she must carve out a role for herself or risk being killed, which brings out the worst in her; Marcy, who doesn’t want to go home at all, spends her time trying to improve the world around her, to mixed results, while remaining blind to the shadowy manipulations surrounding her.  It doesn’t end well for her. 

The article notes that such stories are wish-fulfilment (it implies this is only true of ‘male’ isekai stories, but I think it’s true of ‘female’ stories too) and they tend to be power fantasies, in which the hero – scorned and rejected by his own world – finds another in which he is the admired superhero, after getting a chance to show what he can really do.  His rejection is the fault of a society that doesn’t recognise how great he truly is, thus justifying a series of conquests that eventually pave the way to empire and eternal fame.

I disagree, at least in the case of the third class of isekai stories.

First, a person from the modern world – with access to modern ideas – would be seen, at least at first, as astoundingly brilliant in the past.  What we see as trivia, things we have left behind long ago, would appear wondrous to them.  To us, a biplane from the First World War is a primitive joke; to Generals Grant and Lee, it would be a marvel beyond compare.  A person who knew how to churn out 1914s guns would have one hell of an edge over Napoleon, let alone William the Conqueror.  Or, in an alternate world, he might have new insights that the locals simply miss, because they know their world too well.  The application of the scientific method could change the world even if it doesn’t run on modern principles.

There is, in fact, a historical example of something along these lines.  Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztec Empire, was not – by European standards – a particularly good general.  Compared to the various city-states/tribes of the region, however, Cortés was brilliant.  He was playing from a far more advanced playbook – diplomatic as well as military and technological – and managed to lead a small force to victory over a far more numerous foe.

A writer who knows his stuff can do a very good job of outlining what happens when modern tech – and ideas – hit the past, or other worlds.  How do the locals react?  How do they take the new ideas, good and bad, and build on them?  What are the implications of future ideas entering the mainstream?  How do the great heroes – and villains – of history react to how the future sees them?  Is the future fixed, or can it be changed?

Second, what is wrong with adventure stories anyway?

Scott Palter, may he rest in peace, once commented that he’d grown up on studying history and reading fiction and the fiction was more fun.  I think that is essentially true.  James Bond, for example, may be a strikingly unrealistic spy, but he’s a lot more exciting than someone who sits at a desk all day.  The readers of pulpy adventures don’t want to be lectured: they want to see adventurers having adventures, they want to watch the world changing and developing … they even want to watch the heroes growing and changing too.  And they really don’t want people who are boring and/or reminders of their own failings.  Wesley Crusher was a poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly acted character, but the real problem was that he wasn’t the character anyone wanted to see. 

This may be a reflection of deeper problems within our society.  It is feeling increasingly small and, worse, increasingly confining.  The days in which one could go west in search of a better life are over; the space age is developing slowly and it may be decades before the average person can emigrate to another world.  There is less room for people to act out, let alone look for adventure or significance.  There is nothing new, right now, under the sun.  As Sue Townsend put it:

They give us job creation schemes, when what we want are hopes and dreams.

It is easy to say, of course, that many of the early isekai stories are, by modern standards, deeply problematic.  John Carter of Mars doesn’t read so well these days.  The Guns of the South made sense when it was written, based on what was known at the time, but it hasn’t aged as well as it should.  We know things, now, that Turtledove didn’t when he wrote the book.  And yet, that doesn’t strip them of their excitement.  One does not have to accept the beliefs of the main characters, let alone the unfortunate implications, to enjoy the stories.  And one can learn from the earlier stories.  Island in the Sea of Time has an empire-builder – William Walker – who is decidedly, in and out of the universe, the villain, as well as local characters who learn from the future and change the world, for the better and for the worse. 

But that isn’t the point.  The point is to have fun.  And, perhaps, watch modern jets scythe Nazi aircraft out of the sky.

And now you’ve read this far, I have a request to make.

It’s growing harder to make a living through writing these days.  If you liked this book, please leave a review where you found it, share the link, let your friends know (etc, etc).  Every little helps (particularly reviews).

Thank you.

Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2022