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OUT NOW – Stuck in Magic (A Schooled in Magic Spin-Off)

31 Jul

Elliot Richardson thought he’d lost everything.

He’d come home from deployment to find his wife cheating on him, his sons strangers and his life in tatters. Driving away, unsure where he was going, he fell through an interdimensional rift and found himself in a very different world, a city of magic and mystery and dangers beyond his comprehension, a land spinning out of control as innovations from the distant west unsettle the monarchy and challenge the position of the aristocrats and warlords that hold the kingdom in their grasp.

Powerless and alone, with no way home, Elliot struggles to survive long enough to make a new life. But as war looms on the horizon, he finds himself forced to use his skills to make a name for himself, all too aware that the slightest slip will mean instant death – or worse.

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Schooled in Magic: The Levellers

25 Jul

This is the first draft of an appendix. Comments welcome.

The Levellers

By the time the Void Wars broke out, the Levellers were assumed – at least by kings, princes, aristocrats and even a few magical communities – to exist at every level of society, to the point there was nothing, from crop failure to riots and revolutions, that could not be blamed on them.  Kings saw Levellers behind every tree and, jumping at shadows, often ordered purges that, unsurprisingly, made it harder for the population to stay on the sidelines.  The uprising in Alluvia appeared to prove all their suspicions – particularly the worst – and the Levellers appeared a convenient scapegoat, a menace that had to be destroyed.  Their attempts, however, only ensured that Levelism spread further, in truth, than it could probably have carried itself.

The kings blamed Lady Emily for introducing Levelism and empowering the early Levellers to the point they believed they could make their dreams a reality.  This was untrue.  The genesis of Levelism lay in the city-states, which allowed a certain degree of political discourse, and the more intellectually-minded courts that tolerated academics, as long as said academics remained steady supporters of the monarch and didn’t cross the line into open criticism of the monarchy and/or the aristocracy.  Discussing the duties as well as the rights of the nobility was acceptable, if only to provide convenient excuses for challenging dissident noblemen; any questioning of the monarchy’s right to exist, regardless of who was on the throne, was not.  It was difficult for any early movement to make much headway.  The aristocracy had no interest in paying more than lip service to it, while the lower classes rarely had the education that would have allowed them to mount legal challenges to their social superiors.  Nor did they have the time.  The early thinkers were allowed to exist because they appeared largely harmless.

This changed as a result of Lady Emily’s early innovations.  It was suddenly possible for far more people than ever before to learn to read and write, allowing even those with very basic knowledge to sound out words and spread messages far and wide.  Early Leveller writings, including many written by palace academics that had never been intended for the public eye, followed in their wake.  The result was a series of social upheavals.  The cities saw the effective collapse of the scribe and accounting guilds, while the serfs and peasants in the countryside discovered, as many of them had suspected, that the nobility was denying them their legal rights.  It rapidly became impossible to convince the peasants to accept bland platitudes from their superiors, nor to force them to continue to honour documents they could not read.  There was no way to put the demon back in the bottle without force and trying would result in the destruction of lands and farms the nobility wanted to keep.  Discontent spread rapidly, moving far in advance of any attempt to stop it.  Entire regions rapidly became ungovernable.

Lady Emily made it worse, quite by accident, by abolishing serfdom within Cockatrice and insisting on very limited taxes and tithes from her people.  (This would normally have been heavily opposed by the local nobility, but most of them were either implicated in the attempted coup against King Randor or … convinced … to flee by the suddenly empowered peasants (a number would fight beside the Noblest during the Zangarian Civil War and die during the conflict.))  Cockatrice had never been known for being a land overflowing with milk and honey, but the simple fact the peasants were suddenly allowed to keep most of their produce – and sell it as they saw fit – doubled or tripled farm yields within two years.  The outside world suddenly had something to aspire to, forcing the nobility to either make concessions of their own or risk mass unrest (or simple desertion).

Matters were slightly more restrained in the city-states, as there was already a certain level of education and political participation.  Leveller movements took part in local government, to the best of their abilities, as Levellers themselves started to spread into local institutions.  It was no longer possible for a guild to enforce a monopoly on anything and, as the Levellers flexed their muscles, the majority of the guilds agreed to limited reforms.  This drove forward a major economic boom, which boosted everything from broadsheets – it was truly said that a new broadsheet was founded every day – to steam industries and railways.  Not every new business was a success – it was also said that few broadsheets lasted long enough to make a mark – and Vesperian’s Folly nearly destroyed Beneficence, but overall the changes took root and spread rapidly.  It helped that newly-minted apprentices set out to start their own businesses, in doing so, spread Levelism.

There is no such thing as a typical Leveller.  Levellers come from all walks of society, although the majority tend to be middle-class cityfolk or peasant leaders/activists, both of whom are very aware of how society is weighted against them and ambitious enough to try to make their mark.  Women are surprisingly well represented within Leveller councils, a reflection of what the Levellers owe Lady Emily and, more practically, an awareness that – at least in the more misogynistic communities – it is easier for women to both move around without being noticed and, if they are, to evade both harsh interrogation and the death sentence.  Most Leveller cells give at least lip service to the rights of women, as well as men, although it is unclear how this will shake out in practice.  Too many communities still regard women as little more than property, with their fathers – and later husbands – having ultimate responsibility for their conduct.

Kings, being used to top-down structures, came to believe that the Levellers were a unified force.  Lady Emily, some argued, was the Chief Leveller; others pointed to other names, often their political enemies, and insisted that they had to be in charge.  This was an understandable mistake (spurred by rumour and the fact that underground societies were quite common in aristocratic communities).  The Levellers are not, and never have been, an organised group.  They are, at best, a very loosely organised collection of cells, each one having a different idea of how best to do things and often in disagreement with each other.  City Levellers are often moderate, attached to ideas such as constitutions and laws; Country Levellers, often former serfs and peasants, are much more radical in their approach. 

There is, therefore, very little codification of Leveller thinking, let alone dogma.  However, nearly all Levellers adhere to three tenants:

First, all men (the term is generally taken to mean ‘mankind’) are equal before the law.

Second, all men have the right to bear arms.

Third, all men have the right to grant and withdraw their labour, and move around the world, at will.

These tenants were utterly unacceptable to the aristocracy and monarchs (and even to some magical communities).  The first tenant would undermine all the rights and privileges the aristocrats had claimed for themselves.  The second would threaten their ability to keep the commoners in line with naked force.  The third would make it impossible for them to keep peasants and serfs in the field (serfdom itself would be abolished by the third) unless they paid much better wages.  Their protests, however, did not stop the tenants from spreading and becoming, at least in part, something for the Levellers to work towards. 

It should be clear that there is little consensus beyond those three points.  The Levellers are deeply divided on a multitude of issues, from reform – moderates want an end to serfdom; radicals want the land divided amongst those who work it – to how mankind should be governed and the precise legal status of men, women and children.  Worst of all, perhaps., there is no clear blueprint for how the servants of the old order, still less the masters themselves, should be handled by the new world order.  The minor issues that may damage, perhaps even destroy, Leveller cells have often been allowed to fester.  The major issues have often made it impossible for the new world order to get off the ground and muster its power to defeat the reactionaries before they counterattack.

The future of the Leveller movement, in the wake of the end of the Necromantic Wars, is unclear.  The collapse of the Allied Lands has brought opportunities, but also threats.  The kings, no longer needing to pay lip service to unity (and afraid of the Alluvian Revolution spreading to their lands), have cracked down hard.  The international messenger system, created and maintained by the White Council, has been effectively ruined.  Old certainties are collapsing everywhere.  At the same time, the kings and princes – and the rules they created – have been discredited and there is a glimmer, at least, of hope for the future.

The Cunning Man (Schooled in Magic, but Stand-Alone) – Snippet

19 Jul

Prologue I

Background: The following is a transcript of a speech given by Lady Emily, Founder of Heart’s Eye University, when the university accepted its first influx of students.  It was warmly received by the newcomers, then transcribed and distributed shortly afterwards by the Heart’s Eye Press.  Copies of the speech were, naturally, banned in many kingdoms.  This did not, of course, stop bootleg copies being found everywhere.

***

I said: I want to build a university.

They said: what’s a university?

It was a hard question to answer.  The concept of universal education is largely unknown and very rare, even in the magical community.  Few masters have the experience and inclination to cover all the branches of magic; few apprentices, eager to make complete their apprenticeships and make a name for themselves, are willing to spend years, perhaps, studying all the different aspects of magic and learning how they work together.  I was fortunate that my master was willing to do so, allowing me to develop my magic in ways other masters would regard as frivolous at best and wasteful at worst.  Other apprentices, sad to say, were denied even the option of broadening their field of study.  This has produced a sizable number of alchemists, enchanters and charmsmiths, to list only the most popular apprenticeships, but very few magicians who are prepared to spend their time researching fields of magic that do not either provide immediate results or the possibility of sizable rewards.  Magical theory has advanced, as has the practical application of magic.  We know far more than Lord Whitehall and his peers.  But there is still far much more to learn.

The problem is even worse in the non-magical communities.  The concept of scientific research and technological development, introduced by me, is still relatively new.  It is difficult to convince someone to spend their lives, again, working on concepts that may never produce something worth the effort.  They have to be funded and those who provide the funding demand results, results that can only be measured in something practical.  Guns, for example, or steam engines.  It is no coincidence that kingdoms, cities and independent communities offer huge rewards for gunsmiths and engineers who design and produce newer and better guns and steam engines.  They have immediate practical value.  But again, there is still so much more to learn.

And the only way we can learn is by standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

This is a persistent issue in both communities.  The creators of newer and better ways to do things, from crafting a ward to forging a sword, want to benefit from their own research and experimentation.  They rarely share their work with anyone else, resulting in both magicians and mundanes wasting much of their time either reverse-engineering someone’s work or simply spying on them in hopes of ferreting out their secrets.  This, in turn, forces the creator  to work to hidetheir secrets, wasting even more time.  And yet, the original innovator may not be the one who develops the innovation to its fullest potential.  His successor may be the one who takes the original idea and makes it better.

Eight years ago, I designed the very first abacus, the very first steam engine and the very first printing press.  They were produced to wild applause.  They changed the world.  Now, they’re in the museum.  People point and laugh at my designs and wonder what I was thinking, when I drew them out and hired craftsmen to turn them into reality.  Of course they do.

You see, craftsmen – other craftsmen – looked at my designs and said ‘I can do better.’  And they did.  And now their work is in the museum too, because the next generation of craftsmen looked at their work said ‘I can do better too.’  And so on and so on, each successive generation improving upon the work of the previous generation, each generation inspiring the next to do better.  And that is how it has worked since time out of mind.  The man who first learnt to work metal was rapidly superseded by the men who took his original idea and improved upon it.  The man who first carved a wheel, who built a sailing ship, who came up with one of a million bright ideas, launched generations of better and better ideas that can be traces all the way back to the first spark, to the man who showed it could be done.

The university motto is in two parts.  First, we stand on the shoulders of giants.  Those men, the original innovators, are the giants.  Without them, we would not exist.  Second, and in doing so, we become giants ourselves.  Our improvements upon the original innovations lay the groundwork for the improvers and innovators who will follow in our footsteps and carry our work to levels we cannot even begin to imagine.  And the university exists to facilitate innovation, improvement and practical development.  You and your fellows will share your ideas and innovations and bounce off each other to blaze a path into the future, a future that is bright and full of promise … a future that can be ours, if we reach out and take it.

It is easy to say – many will – that we are merely providing free food and free drink to people who will produce nothing.  Or that we are giving away knowledge – magical and mundane alike – to people who will misuse it, or take it away, improve upon it, and try to claim credit for it.  They may have a point.  We will not be looking for solid measurable progress.  But we will ensure that those who do make process, in theory as well as practical application of said theories, will be rewarded.  It is our feeling – my feeling – that creating a melting pot of ideas and knowledge is worth the cost.

There will be missteps, of course.  There will be bad ideas.  There will be ideas that look good, but aren’t.  There will be impractical ideas; there will be ideas that will be impractical now, but may become practical later.  These ideas will all be tested, without fear, to see which are right and which are wrong.  We will never seek to destroy the spirit of free thought and innovation through stamping on ideas.  Instead, we will question and test every idea and prove it valid – or not.  We will have the right to speak freely – and we will also have the right to be wrong.  To err is human.  We will never make it impossible for someone to recover from their mistakes. 

It will not be easy.  There will always be the temptation to slide into an outdated mindset.  It is never easy to admit that one might be wrong.  Nor is it easy to see all of the little details, all of the tiny aspects of a problem that will defeat any attempt to solve it from a distance.  There will be those who will focus on the whole and miss the tiny details and those who will allow the tiny details to dominate their minds, so they lose track of the whole.  The only way to avoid disaster is to allow questioning, to allow people to put forward challenges, yet the urge to silence them will be very strong.  It must be quenched.  Those who choose to silence, no matter the provocation, are stepping onto a slippery slope that leads all the way to hell itself.

The university exists under the rule of law.  The rules will not change, no matter who you are.  The administrators don’t care if you’re the heir to a throne or if you were born in a pigsty, if you have magic or not.  You will have the right to have your say, to engage in debate and carry out experiments to tease out the truth.  You will not have the right to have your words accepted without question.  You can talk freely, but no one will be forced to listen and agree.  There will be no formal punishment for speaking your mind.  You will never be forbidden to speak or, in any way, express your ideas.  No one else, however, has to listen to you.  You will have to put your ideas together, and present them, and – if necessary – defend them. 

A good idea will stand the test of time.  A bad idea will not.

Technology promises to solve all our problems.  And it will.  But, in doing so, it will create new problems.  There will be those who will say that the new problems are worse than the old, that we should turn back before it is too late … but it is already too late.  The new problems will be solved in their turn, as will the problems that will come in the wake of those solutions.  We can, and we must, embrace the future.  And, to do this, we must learn from our mistakes.  We cannot do that if admitting our mistakes, let alone learning from them, costs more than we can afford to pay.

You will not find it easy.  Many of you come from societies that do not embrace the concept of reasoned debate, let alone freedom of speech.  Others will allow the concept to overwhelm them, to engage in speech without thinking, to push the limits without any purpose beyond shocking and scandalising society.  But you would not be here, listening to me, if you were not at least prepared to try.

The future is within our grasp.  All we have to do is reach out and take it.

Prologue II

“You’re a hard man to find, Master Lance.”

Lance looked up, thoughtfully, as the older man slid into a chair facing him.  The message had surprised him, although – in hindsight – he supposed it shouldn’t have been such a surprise.  Sir Xavier, Lord of the Black Daggers, the man who’d served King Randor from the shadows until the king’s collapse into madness and necromancy … if there was anyone in Alexis who’d know about his presence, it was Sir Xavier.  And yet, Lance was surprised Sir Xavier had dared show his face in public.  Queen Alassa had never formally granted him the kiss of peace.  The smart money suggested Sir Xavier would lose his head the moment he fell into the queen’s hands.  He knew too much.

“I like it that way,” Lance said, curtly.  He signalled the server for wine, then sat back in his chair.  “How did you find me?”

“I have sources within the community,” Sir Xavier told him.  “And one of them was kind enough to point you in my direction.”

“Sources,” Lance repeated.  “Am I to assume they’re not working for Her Most Splendid Majesty?”

Sir Xavier’s lips tightened, but he said nothing until the server had been and gone.  Lance smiled to himself as he lifted the wine to his lips and drank.  The older man had once been a man of wealth and power, one of the few people King Randor trusted to any degree.  It must sting to lose his position practically overnight.  The mere fact Sir Xavier hadn’t left the city suggested he hoped he could worm his way into the queen’s good graces, although Lance suspected he was wasting his time.  The queen was unlikely to trust anyone who hadn’t switched sides the moment her father’s necromancy became apparent.  Sir Xavier had stayed at his post, rather than desert his monarch, until it was too late.

“I have a job for you,” Sir Xavier said.  “I’m prepared to pay in gold.”

Lance raised an eyebrow.  “And who are your patrons?”

“They wish to remain unidentified,” Sir Xavier said, curtly.  “You will respect their feelings on the matter.”

“I see.”  Lance kept his expression bland, but behind his mask his mind was racing.  Sir Xavier wasn’t working for the queen or he would have offered land and royal appointments, rather than gold and gold alone.  That meant … what?  Did Sir Xavier think he could use the mission, whatever it was, to convince the queen to return him to his old post?  Or was he working for someone else?  “And what do they want me to do?”

“Heart’s Eye,” Sir Xavier said.  “Lady Emily’s university” – he stumbled over the odd word – “is up and running.  It is currently accepting students from all over the known world.”

“Interesting,” Lance said, as if he’d never heard of the university.  He had.  He’d even considered going himself, when he’d first heard the news.  Only the simple fact his style of magic demanded horrible things had kept him from packing up what few possessions he wanted to keep and heading to the university.  “I heard a rumour Lady Emily had lost her powers.”

Sir Xavier shook his head.  “The rumour was brutally quashed nearly a year ago,” he said.  “Right now, Lady Emily is in the Blighted Lands.  And will probably be there for quite some time.”

Lance nodded.  “So she’s out of the way,” he said.  “What do you want me to do?”

“The university must be discredited, or destroyed,” Sir Xavier said.  “My patrons hired me to do the job.  I have chosen you as my agent.”

“How … wise … of you,” Lance said.  “I do trust you’ve taken care to ensure your patrons won’t cut all ties and leave you holding the bag?”

He ignored the older man’s scowl.  Queen Alassa could not be Sir Xavier’s patron.  She was as close to Lady Emily as it was possible for someone to be.  And that meant … who?  A magical patriarch?  Or another king?  There were no shortage of possible suspects, men – and a handful of women – who’d be happy to accept Sir Xavier as their servant if they could bring themselves to trust him. Or to use him as a cat’s paw. 

“It won’t be easy,” he said, finally.  “How much support can your patrons give me?  Give us?”

“Gold, and little more,” Sir Xavier told him.  “They do not want to show their hand openly.”

“Of course not.”  Lance allowed himself a grin.  The magical patriarchs – and their mundane counterparts – were all too aware that Lady Emily, a young woman barely out of her teens, had killed necromancers.  They were afraid of her and hated it.  They’d probably be happier if Lady Emily’s father had terrified them instead.  At least he was old enough to be a respectable tyrant.  “They want to keep their hands clean, while we get ours dirty.”

“Your hands are already unclean,” Sir Xavier reminded him, sardonically.  “Or have you forgotten why you were kicked out of Mountaintop?”

“I forgot nothing,” Lance said.  He swallowed his anger with an effort.  “I’ll need gold for supplies and bribes, as well as payment.  Putting together a cover story won’t be easy without outside support.”

“You’ll have it,” Sir Xavier said.  “You’ll have enough money to get whatever you want, as long as the mission is completed before the university is firmly established.”

Lance nodded.  It wouldn’t be easy.  He was a skilled and powerful magician, with a gift for magic even Mountaintop considered dark and dangerous, but the university had a nexus point.  It would be difficult to destroy even if Lady Emily was on the far side of the Craggy Mountains.  He’d have to go there, establish a cover story – perhaps as a magical apprentice – and figure out a way to turn the university upside down.  He could do it and then … his lips curved into a grim smile.  The gold Sir Xavier promised would fund a lot of experiments.  He’d just have to make sure Sir Xavier didn’t have a chance to kill him, after the mission was completed, in hope of covering his tracks.  His patrons would certainly let Sir Xavier keep the gold if he eliminated the need to pay Lance for his services.

He stood.  “It will be a long time before the war is over,” he said.  “Lady Emily will be occupied for quite some time.  I’ll build up a cover story, with your help, and then make my way to Heart’s Eye.  And then we’ll see what I can do.”

“And make sure you send regular reports,” Sir Xavier said.  He dropped a coin on the table, then stood too.  “My patrons wish to be kept informed.”

“Of course.”  Lance bowed, with mocking politeness.  “It will be my pleasure.”

Chapter One

The war was over.

Adam, Son of Alexis, tried to stay out of the way of the cheering crowds as he walked through the streets of Beneficence.  The news had leaked barely thirty minutes ago and the city was already in chaos, rich and poor dancing and laughing together as it sank in that the Necromantic War was finally over.  Adam saw the people – young and old, male and female – shouting and singing and felt joy in his heart, even though he knew it wouldn’t last.  The cityfolk hadn’t paid much attention to the war, believing the necromancers were too far away to bother the city and its population.  It hadn’t been until King Randor of Zangaria – the kingdom on the far side of the bridge – had embraced necromancy that the city had started taking the war seriously and even that hadn’t lasted.  The war had still been a very long way away.

He allowed himself a tight smile as he stood aside to allow a bunch of heralds to march past, their voices – normally boosted by magic – somehow tinny and weak and almost drowned out by the roar of the crowd.  Their masters had finally decided – too late – what they were going to tell the population.  Adam hid his amusement as a broadsheet seller wandered past, waving copies of the latest edition as a crowd of buyers surrounded him.  The chances were good that the story, whatever it was, had come more from the writer’s imagination than the Blighted Lands – the full tale wouldn’t reach the city for days, if not weeks – but it didn’t matter.  The crowd just wanted to hear the good news.  He supposed he couldn’t blame them.  They might have chosen to pretend the necromancers didn’t exist, or that they were thousands of miles away and therefore unlikely to pose any threat to the city, but they knew – deep inside – that it was just an illusion.  Beneficence could stand off a mundane army, not a necromantic horde led by powerful and insane magicians.  The city would fall within minutes if the necromancers brought their power to bear on the sheer rocks, collapsing them into the rivers to provide a bridge for their armies.  It would be the end.

A trio of young women ran past him, fleeing their mother as they hurried to join the party before they were dragged back inside.  Adam grinned as the older woman was caught in the throng, their daughters making their escape before she burst through and came looking for them.  He couldn’t tell if it had been planned or not.  Young men and women were not supposed to meet, except when chaperoned by their elderly relatives, but climbing out of the window and meeting in secret was an old tradition.  Adam had done it himself, when he’d grown into manhood.  His brothers and sisters had done it too.  He felt his grin grow wider as he spotted one of the girls, fleeing – hand in hand – with a young man.  She’d be in trouble when she got home, naturally, but for now she was free.  He was almost tempted to wave at her retreating back.  He might be the youngest of his family, and therefore with more freedom than his older siblings, but he still knew what it was like to grow up in such an environment, to feel suffocated by the weight of social expectations.  It was why he’d worked so hard to become Master Pittwater’s apprentice.

The crowds grew wilder as he made his way along the street.  A middle-aged woman who looked like quality, her clothes making her as a woman of the merchant class, was dancing with a man young enough to be her son.  A pair of elderly gentlemen were regaling the crowd with war stories,  a handful of soldiers were surrounded by female admirers even though they could not possibly have fought in the war.  Here and there, the City Guard was trying to control the crowd, but failing utterly.  Shopkeepers were either shutting up shop, locking and warding their properties before the crowd could turn nasty, or throwing open their doors and inviting everyone to come and browse.  Adam’s lips twitched as he spotted a number of innkeepers, hastily putting up signs advertising FREE BEER.  The bars in the lower reaches of the city were known for poor quality beer, but today – of all days – no one was likely to complain.  The crowd was already halfway to being drunk on its own happiness and sheer relief the war was over.  Surely, things could start getting back to normal now.  It hadn’t occurred to them – yet – that the war had been going on for so long that it was normal.  The post-war world would be unrecognisable.

“HEAR YE!  HEAR YE!”  A herald marched down the street, waving a bell to draw attention and carrying a stack of broadsheets under his arm.  “LADY EMILY VICTORIOUS!  TEN NECROMANCERS DEAD!  HEAR YE!”

Adam took one of the broadsheets – the herald, perhaps wisely, wasn’t trying to charge – and scanned it quickly.  The news was good, too good.  Ten necromancers dead, seven more wondered, billions of orcs slaughtered like sheep … he shook his head, feeling suddenly despondent.  The figures were wrong.  They had to be.  The hastily-written story insisted the army had marched up and down the Blighted Lands, killing necromancers as easily as he might step on a slug.  Adam knew that couldn’t possibly be true.  Lady Emily was the only person who’d slain a necromancer in single combat and there were hundreds of question marks, from what he’d heard, over precisely how she’d done it.  How could anyone, even her, kill ten necromancers and wound seven more?  And yet, there had to be some truth to the story.  The war was over.  What had happened?

A young man, barely entering his teens, reached for the broadsheet.  Adam passed it to him and carried on, making his way towards the magical quarter.  The streets were normally quieter here, but now … he shook his head as he spotted older men hurrying towards the guildhalls, muttering to one another as they tried to decide what to do.  The guildmasters would have to get ahead of the news somehow … Adam rolled his eyes at the thought.  There was no point in trying to catch up now.  The news was already all over the city.  The best they could do was wait for the crowd to exhaust itself while they tried to decide how to react, then retake control once the streets were quiet again.  It might be quite some time.

He glanced up, alarmed, as he saw a scuffle ahead of him.  The craftsmen – their apprentices, rather – had gotten into a fight with a bunch of other apprentices.  Adam gritted his teeth as the fighting threatened to spread out of control, more and more young men – and a handful of young women – hurrying to join the punch-up before it was too late.  Apprentices fought at the drop of a hat and it wasn’t uncommon for fights to end in serious injury or even death, despite the best efforts of their masters and the city’s guardsmen.  He stepped aside and made his way up the alleyway, giving the growing riot a wide berth.  The apprentice robes he wore marked him as a target, yet he was alone.  No one would come to his aid.  If he was caught, he’d be lucky if they just gave him a good kicking.

The alleys were dark.  Adam kept one hand on his money pouch as he made his way down to the next street, careful not to look too closely at the shadows.  The dispossessed and homeless lived within the alleys, scrounging for what little scraps they could as they waited to die.  They wouldn’t hesitate to rob him, if they thought he couldn’t defend himself.  He tried to ignore shapes within the darkness as he reached the end of the alley and stepped into the light.  It was like stepping into another world.  The party on the streets was … different.

He looked up as a young woman, roughly the same age as himself, hurried up and kissed him as hard as she could.  Adam felt his body react to the feel of her body pressed against his, even as his mind spun in shock.  People did not kiss strangers on the streets.  They just didn’t.  The young woman was ruining her reputation … he kissed her back, just for a second, then forced himself to keep going.  She didn’t seem put out as he left her behind.  His hand dropped to his pouch, just to check it was still there.  It was.  He wondered, suddenly, what would happen if he turned back and rejoined her, then put the thought aside.  Master Pittwater had summoned him.  It would destroy his apprenticeship, such as it was, if he chose to ignore the summons.

His heart was still racing when he reached the magical quarter and forced himself to enter the street.  It was infinitively fascinating, as always, and yet there was a constant hint of danger that both attracted and repelled him.  The magicians on the streets – apprentices too, although they would be horrified at any comparison between them and the rioters behind him – had never been quite sure what to make of him.  Some of them treated him as a joke, others thought he needed to be driven out for his own good.  Adam wasn’t their only target, either.  It was truly said that anyone entering the quarter after dark would be lucky to see the next sunrise.  The magicians had marked their territory and guarded it very well.

He felt a pang of the old envy as he walked down the street to the apothecary.  The young men and women on the streets had more power in their little fingers than he had in his entire body.  The man eating fire might be performing a cheap trick, as far as his fellows were concerned, but Adam found it remarkable.  The street magicians danced and sang as they wove their spells into the air, showing off tricks that were more sleight of hand and illusion than anything more magical.  They were the lowest of the low, as far as their peers were concerned, yet they were still far more powerful than Adam himself.  It burned, sometimes, to realise he knew more magical theory than almost every magical apprentice in the city, but he’d never be able to do anything with it.  And yet, he dared to dream …

The apothecary looked surprisingly busy, from the outside.  A line of people – mainly youngsters – waited on the streets, the line inching forward as the apprentices and the hired shopkeepers handled them one by one.  Adam walked into the tiny alleyway and entered the shop through the rear door, the wards parting the moment he placed his hand on the doorknob.  The air smelt faintly of spice, tingling with the promise of magic.  It had never failed to thrill him, even as he slowly lost hope of being able to put his knowledge to good – or any – use.  He removed his cloak and hung it on the rails, then stepped into the brewing room.  Matt – his fellow apprentice – and a young girl he didn’t recognise were bent over a pair of cauldrons, brewing potions.  Adam looked at the remaining ingredients and put the pieces together.  It looked as if they were brewing enough contraceptive potion for the entire city.

Matt didn’t look up.  “Cut us some Ragwort, then Hammersmith Weed.”

Adam resisted the urge to make a sarcastic comment.  Matt was his fellow apprentice, not his master.  He didn’t know the young girl at all, although – if she was brewing potion – she was clearly a magician.  But there was no point in arguing.  Master Pittwater would be furious if they missed out on sales because they didn’t have enough potion to sell and that would be bad.  Adam was all too aware – Matt had pointed it out, several times – that Master Pittwater had taken one hell of a chance on Adam by taking him as an apprentice, or as near to it as possible, and letting him work in the shop.  It was a privilege that could be withdrawn at any moment.

And Matt has it easy, he thought, with a trace of the old bitterness.  The master can’t dismiss him without a very good reason.

He scowled as he forced himself to get to work.  They were very different.  Matt was tall, dark and handsome, with a body that suggested physical strength as well as magic.  Adam was short, pale and blond, with a face that hadn’t quite grown into maturity and a body that had been permanently stunted by a shortage of food.  His father’s death had made food very short for several years and, while he knew his mother had done the best she could, he was all too aware it hadn’t been good enough.  And yet, he’d been lucky.  His mother had managed to keep the family together without remarrying, selling herself or – worst of all – sending her children into service.  He knew there were people on their streets, only a few doors down,  who’d had far less capable mothers.  A handful had vanished so completely that everyone knew they’d sunk to the very lowest parts of the city.  Their former friends pretended they were dead.

“I need a jar of powdered earwig now,” Matt shouted.  “Hurry!”

Adam snorted as he put the knife aside and hurried to get the jar, as well as a dozen other ingredients the other apprentice was likely to need sooner or later.  Matt wasn’t normally careless – Master Pittwater had drilled them both in making sure they had everything they needed on hand before they started to brew – but he was clearly distracted.  Adam eyed the girl beside Matt, wondering who she was.  Matt might have been on a date, when he’d received the summons from their master.  He might have brought her back to the shop in hopes of … Adam shook his head, silently.  Master Pittwater would be furious if Matt brought a stranger into the back without permission.  It was far more likely she’d just been hired for the day.  It was rare, almost unknown, for a male magician to take a young woman as an apprentice.

The woman looked up and met his eyes.  Adam saw a flicker of disgust cross her face before she lowered her eyes back to the cauldron.  He hid his irritation as he turned away.  He knew the type.  A snobbish witch, looking down on the mundane who thought he could become a magician.  The only thing that separated her from Adam’s sisters was her magic and it was an impassable barrier … Adam sighed as he collected more ingredients for the couple without being asked, then returned to his table and continued his work.  Matt was brewing cauldron after cauldron, everything from hangover cures to basic healing salves.  They were simple potions, as long as one had magic.  Without it …

Adam forced himself to keep working as the day slowly gave way to night.  The city normally went to bed with the sun – save for magicians, footpads and guardsmen – but the noise from outside, if anything, grew louder.  He felt a twinge of sadness mingled with regret as the party swept through the streets; half-wishing he was out there with the rest of the city and half-glad he wasn’t.  Not, he supposed, that he had much of a choice.  Master Pittwater had summoned and Adam had to obey.  His lips quirked into a cold smile.  Matt and his girlfriend – they were clearly more than just friends, from the way they constantly brushed against each other – had been summoned too.  They couldn’t be any happier about the situation than Adam himself.

But at least I have an excuse for not attending the party, Adam told himself.  No one would fault me for obeying my master.

“Done.”  Matt’s voice rang through the air.  “Bottle up the potion, then give it to the shopgirls.”

They have names, you know, Adam thought.  You could at least pretend to treat them as people.

He put the thought aside as he collected the tiny glass bottles, all charmed to be unbreakable, and started to measure out the doses.  Master Pittwater had made it clear there was little margin for error, even with the most basic of potions.  Drinking too much could be as dangerous as too little.  Matt and his girlfriend watched – Adam didn’t need to look at them to know they were snickering behind their hands – as he filled the bottles, slotted the lids into place and piled them on a tray.  The noise outside seemed to grow louder.  Adam wondered, sourly, if they were waiting for him.

The door opened.  Master Pittwater stepped into the backroom.

“Matt, take the tray to the front and then you can go for the night,” he said.  He sounded harassed.  “I’ll see you back at the shop tomorrow morning.”

Matt bowed.  “Yes, Master.”

He took the tray from Adam and headed to the front, his girlfriend following in his wake.  Master Pittwater didn’t seem surprised to see her, which suggested … Adam felt another twinge of envy as his master headed towards his private office.  There were times when he felt Matt could do anything, anything at all, without being kicked out of the apothecary and dismissed from the apprenticeship.  Adam could not have brought a girl into the shop and proposed, in all seriousness, that she helped for a day.  Master Pittwater would have laughed at him – if he was lucky – if he’d dared hint his girlfriend joined the staff.  It was … it just wasn’t far.

“Adam,” Master Pittwater said.  His voice was calm.  Too calm.  “We need to talk.”

Hearts Eye Commencement Speech V.2

13 Jul

This is the second version – does it make sense?

Comments welcome.

Hearts Eye Commencement Speech

Background: The following is a transcript of a speech given by Lady Emily, Founder of Heart’s Eye University, when the university accepted its first influx of students.  It was warmly received by the newcomers, then transcribed and distributed shortly afterwards by the Heart’s Eye Press.  Copies of the speech were, naturally, banned in many kingdoms.  This did not, of course, stop bootleg copies being found everywhere.

***

I said: I want to build a university.

They said: what’s a university?

It was a hard question to answer.  The concept of universal education is largely unknown and very rare, even in the magical community.  Few masters have the experience and inclination to cover all the branches of magic; few apprentices, eager to make complete their apprenticeships and make a name for themselves, are willing to spend years, perhaps, studying all the different aspects of magic and learning how they work together.  I was fortunate that my master was willing to do so, allowing me to develop my magic in ways other masters would regard as frivolous at best and wasteful at worst.  Other apprentices, sad to say, were denied even the option of broadening their field of study.  This has produced a sizable number of alchemists, enchanters and charmsmiths, to list only the most popular apprenticeships, but very few magicians who are prepared to spend their time researching fields of magic that do not either provide immediate results or the possibility of sizable rewards.  Magical theory has advanced, as has the practical application of magic.  We know far more than Lord Whitehall and his peers.  But there is still far much more to learn.

The problem is even worse in the non-magical communities.  The concept of scientific research and technological development, introduced by me, is still relatively new.  It is difficult to convince someone to spend their lives, again, working on concepts that may never produce something worth the effort.  They have to be funded and those who provide the funding demand results, results that can only be measured in something practical.  Guns, for example, or steam engines.  It is no coincidence that kingdoms, cities and independent communities offer huge rewards for gunsmiths and engineers who design and produce newer and better guns and steam engines.  They have immediate practical value.  But again, there is still so much more to learn.

And the only way we can learn is by standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

This is a persistent issue in both communities.  The creators of newer and better ways to do things, from crafting a ward to forging a sword, want to benefit from their own research and experimentation.  They rarely share their work with anyone else, resulting in both magicians and mundanes wasting much of their time either reverse-engineering someone’s work or simply spying on them in hopes of ferreting out their secrets.  This, in turn, forces the creator  to work to hidetheir secrets, wasting even more time.  And yet, the original innovator may not be the one who develops the innovation to its fullest potential.  His successor may be the one who takes the original idea and makes it better.

Eight years ago, I designed the very first abacus, the very first steam engine and the very first printing press.  They were produced to wild applause.  They changed the world.  Now, they’re in the museum.  People point and laugh at my designs and wonder what I was thinking, when I drew them out and hired craftsmen to turn them into reality.  Of course they do.

You see, craftsmen – other craftsmen – looked at my designs and said ‘I can do better.’  And they did.  And now their work is in the museum too, because the next generation of craftsmen looked at their work said ‘I can do better too.’  And so on and so on, each successive generation improving upon the work of the previous generation, each generation inspiring the next to do better.  And that is how it has worked since time out of mind.  The man who first learnt to work metal was rapidly superseded by the men who took his original idea and improved upon it.  The man who first carved a wheel, who built a sailing ship, who came up with one of a million bright ideas, launched generations of better and better ideas that can be traces all the way back to the first spark, to the man who showed it could be done.

The university motto is in two parts.  First, we stand on the shoulders of giants.  Those men, the original innovators, are the giants.  Without them, we would not exist.  Second, and in doing so, we become giants ourselves.  Our improvements upon the original innovations lay the groundwork for the improvers and innovators who will follow in our footsteps and carry our work to levels we cannot even begin to imagine.  And the university exists to facilitate innovation, improvement and practical development.  You and your fellows will share your ideas and innovations and bounce off each other to blaze a path into the future, a future that is bright and full of promise … a future that can be ours, if we reach out and take it.

It is easy to say – many will – that we are merely providing free food and free drink to people who will produce nothing.  Or that we are giving away knowledge – magical and mundane alike – to people who will misuse it, or take it away, improve upon it, and try to claim credit for it.  They may have a point.  We will not be looking for solid measurable progress.  But we will ensure that those who do make process, in theory as well as practical application of said theories, will be rewarded.  It is our feeling – my feeling – that creating a melting pot of ideas and knowledge is worth the cost.

There will be missteps, of course.  There will be bad ideas.  There will be ideas that look good, but aren’t.  There will be impractical ideas; there will be ideas that will be impractical now, but may become practical later.  These ideas will all be tested, without fear, to see which are right and which are wrong.  We will never seek to destroy the spirit of free thought and innovation through stamping on ideas.  Instead, we will question and test every idea and prove it valid – or not.  We will have the right to speak freely – and we will also have the right to be wrong.  To err is human.  We will never make it impossible for someone to recover from their mistakes. 

It will not be easy.  There will always be the temptation to slide into an outdated mindset.  It is never easy to admit that one might be wrong.  Nor is it easy to see all of the little details, all of the tiny aspects of a problem that will defeat any attempt to solve it from a distance.  There will be those who will focus on the whole and miss the tiny details and those who will allow the tiny details to dominate their minds, so they lose track of the whole.  The only way to avoid disaster is to allow questioning, to allow people to put forward challenges, yet the urge to silence them will be very strong.  It must be quenched.  Those who choose to silence, no matter the provocation, are stepping onto a slippery slope that leads all the way to hell itself.

The university exists under the rule of law.  The rules will not change, no matter who you are.  The administrators don’t care if you’re the heir to a throne or if you were born in a pigsty, if you have magic or not.  You will have the right to have your say, to engage in debate and carry out experiments to tease out the truth.  You will not have the right to have your words accepted without question.  You can talk freely, but no one will be forced to listen and agree.  There will be no formal punishment for speaking your mind.  You will never be forbidden to speak or, in any way, express your ideas.  No one else, however, has to listen to you.  You will have to put your ideas together, and present them, and – if necessary – defend them. 

A good idea will stand the test of time.  A bad idea will not.

Technology promises to solve all our problems.  And it will.  But, in doing so, it will create new problems.  There will be those who will say that the new problems are worse than the old, that we should turn back before it is too late … but it is already too late.  The new problems will be solved in their turn, as will the problems that will come in the wake of those solutions.  We can, and we must, embrace the future.  And, to do this, we must learn from our mistakes.  We cannot do that if admitting our mistakes, let alone learning from them, costs more than we can afford to pay.

You will not find it easy.  Many of you come from societies that do not embrace the concept of reasoned debate, let alone freedom of speech.  Others will allow the concept to overwhelm them, to engage in speech without thinking, to push the limits without any purpose beyond shocking and scandalising society.  But you would not be here, listening to me, if you were not at least prepared to try.

The future is within our grasp.  All we have to do is reach out and take it.

Updates

11 Jul

Hi, everyone

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  I’ve finished the first draft of The Prince’s War (Prince Roland’s story, The Empire’s Corps) and I’ve resolved to try and take it a little easier for this week.  That said, I do have edits for Child of Destiny and Stuck in Magic, which will be published as the start of a spin-off series (provisional title for Book 2 is Her Majesty’s Warlord), as well as a handful of other loose ends to worry about at some point.  I’ve fallen behind on my email, so I probably need to do something about that too (sorry if you emailed me and I didn’t reply.)

I’m unsure what to write next, to be honest.  I’m torn between The Cunning Man, which is a massively expanded (and third person) version of the novella in Fantastic Schools III (which could do with some review love, if anyone’s interested) and Standing Alone, which is the more or less direct sequel to Cast Adrift.  Owing to a slight mix-up, mainly my fault, any cover for Cunning will be delayed, which will give me time to edit but also slow production a little.  Let me know which one you want, please.

In other news …

I’ve been considering a weird little idea partly inspired by Barb’s Changing Faces.  The basic concept is that there’s a pair of university students, a man and woman in their twenties, who have an argument over who had it worst in the past – men or women.  A goddess/Q-type meddler overhears the argument and decides to show them what it was really like by sending them back in time (and possibly into a fantasy universe) and gender-swapping them.  The young man becomes a young noblewoman, the young woman becomes a low-ranking nobleman fostered at the noblewoman’s castle.  They rapidly find out the past isn’t a bed of roses for anyone.

I haven’t decided where to take the story yet.  Part of me wants to keep it as an intensely personal story, with the two struggling to survive and establish themselves; part of me wants to think of it as another tech uplift story and/or fantasy setting story.

What do you think?

Chris

Draft Afterword: Stuck in Magic

11 Jul

Again, comments are welcome.

Afterword

Back in 2000, or thereabouts, I was a member of a short-lived book club – short-lived, I have to admit, because while we were all interested in books we were not interested in the same types of books.  It was hard to find books that we were all willing to read, let alone discuss, and while it did expose me to different genres that broadened my mind a little it also convinced me that some people had takes on books that never agreed with mine. One of those takes stuck in my mind.

We were reading the first book in the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon.  (It was titled Cross Stitch in the UK, but I’m going to stick with the US title here.)  The basic plot is relatively simple; Claire Randall, a nurse from 1940s Britain, finds herself stranded in 1740s Scotland, shortly before the Jacobite Rising of 1945.  She is taken in by the local community, uses her medical skills to impress them, weds a young man – Jamie – and eventually becomes involved in the morass of political and personal struggles threatening to tear the Highlands apart.  It was, I thought, a good novel, but not one that interested me; Claire didn’t seem to have any real impact on history, not even introducing better medicine and suchlike.

One of the other readers, a young woman, thought it was a brilliant novel.  She liked the idea of going back in time and marrying a man from a simpler age.  I found that attitude difficult to process.  Claire fell into a world of disease and deprivation, where a person without kin had little hope of survival; a world where women, such as Claire, were pretty much the property of their husbands.  There is even a scene where Claire is physically disciplined by Jamie and while it is possible to argue that Claire deserved it, or that Jamie had no choice but to make it clear to the rest of the clan that Claire had been punished, it doesn’t mask the fact that the world of 1740 was not kind to anyone.  The idea of someone wanting to go back in time and live there struck me as absurd.  They would be throwing away both the comforts of the modern world and their own safety. 

It is always fun to romanticise the past, and how to consider how it might be changed by an influx of ideas from the future.  It would not, however, be easy to have any lasting impact (certainly if you happened to be a single person with no real proof of your story).  Our ancestors generally had good reasons for being the people they were.  Their societies were adapted to realities that we simply don’t understand.  We recoil in horror when we look back at the sins of the past – slavery, conquest, semi-rigid gender roles – without realising that our ancestors had less choice than one might suppose.  They had attitudes, shaped by their environment, that often made them seem an alien people.  It is easy to think they were very primitive and indeed stupid.  How could they take such obvious untruths for granted?  But the simple fact is that they didn’t know they were untruths and it took time, decades and centuries, for society to advance to the point they could be put in the past, where they belonged.  The world of our ancestors had no place for them.

Consider, education.  It took years, in the past, to teach someone to read and write, let alone turn them into an educated man, even by the standard of the time.  Who amongst the common-born had time for it, when they had to scrape a living from the land?  The idea of universal education simply didn’t catch on – it couldn’t – until society reached the point where it could support children in schools, instead of forcing the children to work from a very early age.  When our ancestors did something, they generally had a reason for it.

Now, what does that have to do with Schooled in Magic and Stuck in Magic?

Emily did not realise, at least for several years, that when she arrived in the Nameless World she arrived at a very high level indeed.  She had magic, which made her a de facto noblewoman; she was popularly believed, amongst the local chattering classes, to be the bastard child of one of the most powerful sorcerers in the known world.  And she was at Whitehall, a relatively safe environment compared to the rest of the world.  People were prepared to listen to her, and give credence to her words, even before she became the Necromancer’s Bane, Duchess of Cockatrice, Mistress of Heart’s Eye, etc.  This gave her enough room to introduce a handful of simple innovations, which took off like rockets and ensured some of her more radical ideas got a chance to breathe.  She had her failures – some ideas didn’t work because she didn’t know the details – but she had enough credibility, by this point, for her missteps to be overlooked. 

And, even though a sizable number of powerful people were growing increasingly concerned about her, and her impact on their society, they were reluctant to take open steps to deal with her for fear of the consequences. By the time they tried, it was too late to put the genie – they would have seen it as a demon – back in the bottle.  Killing Emily would not have stopped the revolution she (accidentally) started. 

Elliot has none of those advantages.  He is a man without magic, a soldier in a world that regards soldiers – at best – as parasites.  Worse, perhaps, he is a man – and therefore automatically seen as more threatening than the younger Emily – without any real social position at all.  He is a child of his world, just like Emily, but he’s in an environment that takes a far dimmer view of his ‘eccentricities.’  He has no rights, beyond those he can secure for himself; he has no patron, at least at first, to provide political cover and protection.  He doesn’t have the option of dispensing ideas and concepts as a farmer might scatter seeds on the ground, to see which ones sprout into life; he has to get down and dirty just to build a place for himself before he winds up dead in a ditch.  Emily can afford to take risks with people like Harbin Galley.  Elliot cannot.

I went back and forth about writing this story for a long time.  Part of it was concern about crossing wires with The Cunning Man; part of it was fear about breaking the world I’d created over twenty-four novels and four novellas.  I only decided to do it because I had the first scene rattling around in my head, demanding I write it.  I’d been meaning to try to write a serial, so I plotted out a rough story and wrote two-four chapters per month until I reached a logical stopping point.  And then I started drawing up the plans for the next book, Her Majesty’s Warlord.

I’m not sure, yet, how the next book will be written.  A serial, like this one, or a more normal project?  (One thing I discovered, when looking over the files, was that the serial format created headaches of its own.)  Nor do I know, yet, if Eliot will ever meet Emily (although I think that, one day, they probably should come face to face.)  As always, if you have any thoughts on the matter, feel free to let me know.

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, 2021

Draft Afterword: The Prince’s War

10 Jul

This is the draft, so any comments are welcome.

Afterword

“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?  From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”

-John Ball

Someone – I forgot who – once complained that science-fiction writers could only imagine monarchies, that numerous stories set in the far future included monarchies that wouldn’t have been unrecognisable to our ancestors from the distant past.  Their complaint, if I recall correctly, was that there were other possibilities – direct democracy, for example, or actually workable communism – and monarchies were just plain lazy.  Leaving aside the simple observation that monarchies tend to make for better stories, even if you wouldn’t want to live in those worlds personally, the simple truth is that the human race has been governed by monarchies for thousands of years.  Large-scale constitutional democracy is actually, on a historical scale, a fairly new invention.  Indeed, monarchy appears so often that one is tempted to wonder if there is something in humanity that adores a monarch.

The historical record seems to suggest that democracies have a fairly short shelf life.  The democracy of Athens, which operated on a very limited franchise, was brought low by its own internal quarrels and weaknesses and eventually gave way to outside rule.  The Roman Republic effectively suffocated under the weight of its own empire, eventually leading to civil war and the de facto creation of a monarchy.  Peasant revolts against the European aristocracies often ended with the peasants choosing not to land the killing blow, only to be slaughtered when the aristocrats regained their nerve; the downfalls of King Charles I and Louis XVI were rapidly followed by political chaos, the rise of rulers with monarchical powers (Cromwell, Napoleon) and, eventually, the restoration of the monarchy.  Even the modern-day United States has not been immune to this trend.  President Bush43 was the son of President Bush41, while Hilary Clinton was the wife of President Clinton42; there are, as of writing, suggestions that the wives or daughters of Presidents Obama44 and Trump45 will enter politics.  If they do, their connections will both help and hinder them. 

Monarchy, a system of hereditary rule, is in fact near-universal throughout human history.  So are the problems it brings in its wake.  A king who remains in power too long will grow set in his ways, unable to change with the times.  Strong and capable kings give way to sons who are far less capable and therefore weaken – and sometimes lose – the throne.  And, of course, there is not even the pretence of democracy.  Kings claimed to be the protectors of their people – smart rulers worked hard to create the illusion all the bad stuff was done by evil counsellors, who could be sacrificed if necessary – but the idea of commoners having a say in their own affairs was effectively blasphemy.

Why did this happen?

The first king, it is often said, was a lucky bandit.  This isn’t entirely true – no one can call Augustus Caesar a bandit – but there is a degree of truth in it.  The first kings (however termed) were men who reshaped society to support their primacy, creating a network of supporters who upheld the king’s position because to do otherwise would weaken their own position.  This pattern was followed by every successful king, but also powerful figures as diverse as Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein.  The reshaping gave the aristocrats, however defined, a stake in society; it also carved out a logical and understandable chain of command and line of succession that provided a certain governmental stability.  There could not be – in theory – any struggle over the succession, once a king died.  His firstborn son would take the throne.  In practice, it was often a little more complex.  It was not until the institution of monarchy became predominant within Western Europe that the line of succession was clearly laid down and unhappy heirs still posed potential threats to newly crowned monarchs (and usurpers, such as Napoleon, found it hard to gain any real legitimacy.)

This structure went further than you might think.  It co-opted religious institutions, merchants and, right at the bottom, commoners, serfs and de facto slaves.  It was incredibly difficult for them to rise in the world, but there was – again, in theory – certain limits on how badly they could be abused.  They knew their place in the world, yet they also knew how far their lords could go.  The Poll Tax of 1381 England, for example, was sparked by the government demanding more and more taxes, taxes that were beyond the commonly accepted levels and collected with a previously known fervour.  The monarch’s representatives had broken the rules, as far as his subjects were concerned, and therefore waging war on them – to teach them a lesson, rather than destroy them – was perfectly legal.  Naturally, the aristocracy disagreed. 

There were, at least in theory, advantages to this structure.  The king was a known figure, a person who could reasonably expect to be on the throne for decades and therefore show a degree of long-term planning; the imperative to sire a heir and a spare was a clear commitment to securing the future of his holdings.  The king would have a bird’s eye view of the kingdom, as well as experience in administration and warfare, and could therefore make decisions that benefited the entire kingdom.  On paper, monarchy may seem to be amongst the better forms of human government.

The problems of monarchical rule, however, are manifold.  No human ever born can hope to absorb and process an entire country’s worth of information, even when that information reaches the monarch without being altered by his servants.  Kings therefore make poor decisions because they don’t know what’s really going on.  Second, kings are often the prisoners of their own throne.  A king cannot easily rule against his great lords, the ones who are abusing the commoners, for fear of turning them against him permanently and therefore being disposed when a new challenger arrives.  Third, a king’s sons are rarely as capable as their father because they haven’t struggled and suffered in quite the same way.  The great kings of England – Henry II, Edward I, Henry V, James VI and I, Charles II – were often followed by sons and grandsons who lacked their father’s insight.  Indeed, a heir’s failings may become apparent very early on – Henry the Young King, for example – but because of the nature of monarchy it was very difficult to remove them from the line of succession. 

And, when they become kings in their own right, they were very hard to remove.  Richard II was disposed by his own cousin, Henry VI became a pawn in the original game of thrones, Charles I had his head lopped off after a civil war and James II was replaced by his sister and brother-in-law.  The price of monarchy, in short, is periods of instability caused by kings who were not up to the task, or lacked a power base of their own (Mary of Scotland) and ambitious aristocrats manoeuvring for power.

At its core, the problem of monarchy is that it puts the primacy of the monarch and his aristocrats ahead of the interests of the entire kingdom.  The king practices – he must practice – a form of nepotism.  He must put forward men who are loyal to him personally, rather than the kingdom itself; he must use his sons and daughters as pawns on the diplomatic chess board, rather than let them marry for love (or bring new blood into the monarchy).  He must raise his sons to take his place, all too aware that refusing to grant them real power will lead to resentment, hatred and (perhaps) civil war when – if – the heir’s courtiers start pushing him to grant favours he simply doesn’t have the wealth or power to give.  The kingdom therefore becomes a collection of scorpions in a bottle, the monarchy unwilling to make any compromises for fear of where they will lead, let alone allow people to question his power, and the aristocracy unwilling to put aside its prerogatives for the greater good.  This is a recipe for chaos and revolution.  And revolution can often lead to a tyranny worse than the now-gone monarchy. 

***

Why, then, are monarchies so popular?

There’s one argument that suggests the myth – and yes, it is a myth – of the ‘Father Tsar’ is actually quite appealing, that one can find comfort in it as one might find comfort in spiritualism and religion.  There’s another that suggests a person bred and trained for power will do a better job than someone elected into their position, although both the historical record and simple common sense suggestions otherwise.  And there’s a third that says we look at the fancy outfits and romantic lives and don’t recognise the downsides.  And there’s a fourth that hints we all want to surrender our autonomy, to unite behind a single divinely anointed leader and follow him wherever he leads, rather than questioning him too closely for fear of what we might find.  Personality cults are growing increasingly common these days and those who ask if the emperor has no clothes often come to regret it. 

Personally, I think the blunt truth is that very few of us have any real idea of what it is like to live under an absolutist monarchy.  The few remaining western monarchies are jokes, compared to their predecessors.  It is easy to watch Bridgeton and debate whether or not Daphne raped Simon; it is harder to understand why a real-life Daphne might feel driven to such an action, or the consequences if she’d taken any other course.  The fancy costumes we love hide a grim reality, one better left in the past.  As the joke goes …

“My girlfriend wanted me to treat her like a princess.  So I married her off to a man old enough to be her father, a man she’d never met, to secure an alliance with France.”

There is a temptation in monarchy.  There is an entirely understandable sense that uniting behind a single man is right, particularly if that man has divine right, and if you do that man will fight for you.  But no one can be trusted with such power.  They would, eventually, be corrupted or be replaced by those who became corrupted themselves.  Those people do not fight for you.  They fight for themselves. 

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

It’s growing harder to make a living through self-published 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, 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.