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OUT NOW – The Revolutionary War (The Royal Sorceress V)

29 Jan

Something is rotten in the state of France …

After years of inconclusive war, the Franco-Spanish Empire is on the verge of collapse. The military is coming apart, the people are starving, the economy is on the brink … and yet, as long as the crown keeps tight control of its magicians, all hope of revolution and victory remains faint. The secret police are in control, rebel magicians are hunted down and eliminated before they can pose a threat and, worst of all, the government has found a new way to enhance magical power. The situation seems dire. But with a little help, there may be a chance.

Returning from America with Bruce, her fiancé, Gwen is not best pleased to be sent to Paris to train the rebels in magic, to give them a fighting chance against the government before the stresses of war threaten to destroy the British Empire as surely as their French enemies. But with shadowy figures lurking in the background, and an entire country on the brink of chaos, Gwen must face her gravest challenge yet …

… In an environment where her enemies hold all the cards.

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then download from the links HERE!

Snippet – The Grandmaster’s Tale

23 Jan

Another Fantastic Schools novella … speaking of which, if you want to submit a story, check out the rules here.

Prologue

I was not intending, originally, to write this story.

The truth of what happened, many years ago, to unseat Grandmaster Boscha from his tenure at Whitehall was carefully buried, with good reason.  Myself, the prime mover in those events, and my comrades had every incentive to keep the truth to ourselves.  Those who supported Boscha, and found themselves vulnerable when his influence was broken, had similar reasons to keep their mouths shut.  The cover story remains firmly in place until this day.

This statement will not see publication, like my prior missive, until after the death of everyone involved.  The spells I have woven into the parchment will see to it.

The background, of course, is fairly well known.  The war was over.  The empire was gone.  The necromancers were a distant threat on the horizon and the Allied Lands, the union of kingdoms that spent more time fighting each other than the common foe, only existed in embryo.  The schools, once loyal to the Emperor and his court of magicians, were effectively independent, practically statelets in their own right.  Their masters had authority and influence, at least in part, because no one had the power to tell them no.  It was a situation calling for tact, diplomacy and a certain willingness to compromise.  Grandmaster Boscha had none of those things.

He was a … difficult person to understand, let alone to like.  He had reached the peak of his profession, securing a position that would put his name in the historical records, yet he wanted more.  He had little interest, as far as I could tell, in actually ruling the school, leaving the task of keeping the students in order to his staff and prefects.  My brothers and I spent seven years of our lives at Whitehall and the only time we ever spoke to him privately, or visited his office, was when we were punished for the heinous crime of defending ourselves against bratty aristos who thought they were better than us just because they knew their mother’s name.  It was bad enough that we’d been attacked by nine older students who should, on paper, have wiped the floor with us, but worse that the four of us – after winning the fight – were punished.  Boscha didn’t care.  Our attackers were well connected and that was all that mattered to him.  It made sense to me at the time – who cares about four magicians of dubious origin when their attackers had the purest pedigrees anyone could possibly want – but as I grew older I found the whole affair incomprehensible.  Boscha didn’t need to suck up to anyone, not then.  It wasn’t until much later that I found out why.

It had surprised me, when I applied for the post of Charms Master at Whitehall, that he’d accepted me.  In hindsight, I wonder if he even bothered to look at the name on the application letter.  I had the skills and experience to handle the job, but my family had effectively disowned me – after the incident that left two of my half-brothers dead and a third lost to himself – and I brought nothing beyond myself.  There was never any shortage of candidates for any post at Whitehall, from senior tutor to scullery maid, even though the students were rambunctious and prone to abusing both tutors and maids.  The tutors, at least, could defend themselves.  The maids … well, let’s just say there was a reason there used to be an orphanage in Dragon’s Den.  Boscha didn’t care about that either.  I had theories about why, but none of them quite fitted the facts.  Perhaps he really didn’t care.  Who knew?

I was quick to establish my authority.  Students, particularly ones with magic or aristocracy or both, are like wild animals.  You can’t show them a hint of weakness or they’ll walk all over you, the girls as well as the boys.  You can’t be one of the boys – or girls – either, not if you want to be a disciplinarian.  The idea of letting yourself become friendly – or romantically involved – with a student is dangerous beyond words. You had to keep a mental barrier between you and them at all times or, at best, you’d wind up humiliated in front of the entire school.  At worst … you don’t want to know.  Really, you don’t.

It worked, slowly but surely.  I proved I knew what I was talking about – the handful of students who challenged me were effortlessly shown their place – and that I was actually worth taking seriously.  Students have no respect for tutors who clearly don’t know what they’re doing, or lack the personal authority to make themselves heard, but I never had a problem with it.  The disruptions that shook other classrooms never plagued mine after the first year.  Indeed, I was often called upon to help other tutors handle their classes.  Not all of them were grateful.  But who could blame them?  To admit you needed help was to weaken yourself in the eyes of the students.

I could have been happy, I suppose, if I’d stayed a tutor for the rest of my life.  I’d done well and I knew it, rising to the tenured post of senior tutor.  I had a reputation as a tutor no one crossed, certainly not twice, and I had far fewer problems with the students once they realised that I could still see, even though I was blind.  The world might be shades of grey, rather than bright primary colours, but I had no difficulty living a full life.  I could have gone into Whitehall and stayed there for the rest of my life, leaving the rest of the world behind.  I could have been happy …

… But it was not to be.

I had been a tutor for five years when the outside world intruded into my academic paradise and all hell threatened to break loose.

It wasn’t until it was almost too late that I realised it had been invited.

Chapter One

It began, although I didn’t realise it at the time, in a staff meeting.

Grandmaster Boscha was not, as I often had cause to reflect, a very nice man.  He played favourites, promoting his toadies and excusing students he felt might be of use to him, rather than upholding the school’s famed neutrality.  He issued detentions that would make a royal torturer blanch, insisting – when he was challenged, which happened rarely – that they built character.  He turned a blind eye to rampant bullying, corruption and outright criminality, while spending most of his days playing politics while using the school as a personal – and heavily warded – fortress.  Worst of all, he held very long and boring staff meetings. 

Personally, I thought they were cruel, unusual and extremely sadistic punishment.

He was, and remains, a difficult person to describe.  My brother, whose name I will not speak, called him the crookered man, a snide remark that had a great deal of truth in it.  Boscha was tall and pale and yet there was something about the way he held himself that made him look misshaped, as if someone had cast a particularly nasty series of limb-lengthening charms on him and the damage had never truly been repaired.  His hair was dark and oily, spilling around his shoulders like liquid night; his eyes were darker still, set within a face that had more than a hint of demihuman ancestry, in that it looked subtly wrong to the human eye.  I doubted it was true – Boscha wouldn’t have reached his post if there’d been something nasty, or inhuman, lurking within the family tree – but his appearance set off all kinds of rumours.  His angry reaction to questions about his ancestry didn’t put the rumours to rest.  They just convinced his students there was a gem of truth buried under the mountain of bovine excrement the aristocratic families produced to cover it.  I didn’t care.  I had good reason to dislike Boscha without dragging his heritage into it. 

And besides, I was hardly able to point fingers at his background without calling attention to mine.

“The world is changing,” Boscha said.  “And we must embrace it.”

I tried not to groan as he kept talking, hitting us with an endless serious of platitudes that meant – as far as I could tell – very little.  He had a plummy aristocratic voice that grated on my nerves, a grim reminder of my dear Uncle Mago, and made me want to cast all sorts of nasty charms on him.  Or rip out his tongue.  I’d never met anyone who was so fond of the sound of his own voice as Boscha and I’d grown up as part of House Barca, a family known for their egos.  They’re still sneering at House Ashworth for being able to trace its bloodline back only five thousand years.  Personally, I thought the records had been faked years ago and nothing more than a few hundred years old was reliable, but there was nothing to be gained from arguing.  Uncle Mago had thrown a fit when I’d dared ask how reliable our ten thousand year old records actually were.

He should have been a tutor, I thought.  The students would eat him alive.

“The old order is gone,” Boscha continued.  “It falls to us to consider what shape the new order should take.”

I sighed inwardly, my eyes sweeping the room.  Daphne – Boscha’s assistant – was eying him worshipfully.  I wasn’t sure if her admiration was real or feigned, but it didn’t matter.  She had a reputation as a backstabbing sneak who could be relied upon to tattle to her boss if someone did something, anything, Boscha could hold against him.  Mistress Constance, the Alchemy Mistress, looked as if she was quietly going through potion ingredients in her head, an old tactic to keep one’s mind from wandering too far.  Madame Clover, the Healer, looked incredibly impatient … either that, or she wanted to go to the toilet.  I didn’t know.  Lady Pepper, the Combat Magic Tutor, looked as bored as I felt.   Our eyes met – more accurately my covered eyes met hers – and we shared the same thought.  How long could our boss prattle on before actually saying something important?

My mood darkened with every passing second.  I could be in the classroom, preparing my lesson plans for the next week, or supervising detentions.  Or … there was an entire list of things I needed to do, before the coming exams, none of which were being done because I was stuck in the stupid meeting.  Gods!  I didn’t know why Boscha bothered.  He ruled the school.  He could do whatever he liked, more or less, and get away with it.  As long as he was careful not to push his staff too far …

“We must take this opportunity in both hands and seize it,” Boscha continued.  “Both for ourselves, but for the good of our community.”

I wished, suddenly, that he’d given the speech in front of the students.  Someone would have hurled a tomato by now, even though he’d have been flogged to within an inch of his life and whatever was left of him put in the stocks.  Students have low boredom thresholds, particularly when it comes to kneeling on the stone floor in a manner that is pretty much a stress position, and I couldn’t blame one or more for lashing out.  Perhaps I’d volunteer to administer their punishment myself, so I could take them somewhere that sounded unpleasant but was nothing of the sort.  Maybe I could convince the Grandmaster that a few hours in the White City, attending pointless meetings, was sufficient.  But I doubted he’d get the joke.

Or he would, I reflected.  He just wouldn’t see it as a comment on him.

“There are matters that need to be attended to,” Boscha said.  “And I’m sure we are in agreement on this point.”

“Quite,” Madame Clover said.  I was surprised she’d managed to get a word in edgeways.  “We need to do something about students getting injured by other students.  And quickly.”

I winced, inwardly.  Whitehall had always been a rough place – students had been establishing the pecking order since the school’s founding, through force of magic, intimidation and breeding – but it had been getting worse recently as the chaos outside the walls started to spill into the school.  My brothers and I had been lucky.  The four of us had watched each other’s backs, and we’d had the advantage of growing up in a magical household, but other students – particularly the newborns – weren’t so lucky.  A student who didn’t even know he had magic a year ago was hellishly vulnerable, when he found himself in Whitehall.  On paper, he’d come into his magic at the same time as his peers.  In practice, he was so far behind that catching up was incredibly difficult.  They tended to find themselves slaving for the older boys.  It was the only way to get some protection.

I’d always felt sorry for those boys, and done what I could to help.  But it hadn’t been enough.

“Boys will be boys,” Boscha said, dismissively.  “It is of no concern as long as it doesn’t impede their learning …”

Madame Clover cut him off.  I admired her bravery.  Very few people would dare lay a hand on a healer, or hurl a spell, but it was still risky to interrupt her superior.  Boscha had quite a few ways to get back at her without making it obvious.  Or he might just start looking for a replacement.

“The problem is getting out of hand,” Madame Clover snapped.  “Yesterday, I had nine students in the infirmary, all hexed well beyond the point they could heal themselves, and a girl someone had slipped a love potion!  She was lucky, sir, that her friend realised the problem and dragged her to me for a curative before it was too late.  She could have been raped!”

I shuddered.  Love – lust – potions were nasty.  The basic brews would turn their victim into a lusty creature, lost to reason as they tried to satisfy their lusts … with consequences that could easily be imagined.  The more advanced and dangerous brews were far worse.  The victim would become obsessed, either submitting themselves to the brewer or taking them by force.  There were horror stories about people who’d meddled with such potions and wound up hurt, or dead.  None of them were particularly reassuring.  How could they be?

“It will teach her a useful lesson,” Boscha said.  “She could have checked her drink for potion before taking a sip.”

Madame Clover glared.  “This week, I also had twenty servants who’d been hexed or cursed,” she raged.  “Two manservants were turned into toads, a maid was trapped in a mirror and another spelled into walking around naked …”

Boscha shrugged, as dismissively as before.  “They knew the risks when they chose to work here,” he said.  “There’s no shortage of people willing to take their place.”

I suspected he had a point.  Whitehall was a dangerous place to work, if you lacked magic, but the wages were high and you got your basic needs met, letting you save your money instead of spending it on food, drink and somewhere to sleep.  It said something about magical society, I supposed, that while the senior families found magical abuse of mundanes to be contemptible they rarely bothered to do anything about it.  Boscha was unlikely to face any rebukes for not cracking down hard on students who abused the staff.  It was much more likely he’d be scolded for cracking down.  And yet, he had the power to tell the whiners to get lost.  He just had to use it.

No one in their right mind wants their children to learn bad habits, I thought, crossly.  They’ll reflect badly on their parents.

“The point, sir, is that we are allowing some of our students to rampant,” Madame Clover insisted.  “And it is going to bite us.”

“It is vitally important we encourage them to develop their powers,” Boscha said, tartly.  “That which doesn’t kill them makes them strong.”

“That which doesn’t kill can still inflict a great deal of harm,” Madame Clover countered.  “It is only a matter of time, sir, before someone winds up dead!”

“Or broken,” I added.  “There’s no point in fighting if you can’t win.”

Boscha glowered at me.  I forced myself to look back.  I’d met serfs on their plantation fields, working their asses off to grow a tiny crop … serfs who were so battered down by their masters that they couldn’t even raise a hand in self-defence or the defence of their wives and daughters.  They lived in the mud from birth to death, unable to bring themselves to stand up for themselves.  They had legal rights, true, but they couldn’t claim them.  Their masters would crush them if they tried.  And so they just trudged their way through life.

“They can win,” Boscha said.  “If they apply themselves …”

“They keep getting knocked down,” I said.  “At some point, after being knocked down repeatedly, you start wondering if you should bother getting up again.”

Boscha didn’t seem impressed.  I sighed inwardly.  I knew how he felt.  It was hard, almost impossible, to understate the gulf between a magician born into an old and powerful family and a magician who was the first in his family.  The former knew enough theory to be able to put it into use, when he came into his magic; the latter was learning from scratch, forcing him to scramble to catch up before it was too late.  It was like pitting a toddler against a ground man and expecting the toddler to win.  Worse, perhaps.  It was like migrating to a city-state and discovering, too late, that the rules were different and your opponents knew how to manipulate them to best advantage.

Heads I win, I thought, tiredly.  Tails you lose.

“That speaks to a weakness in their character,” he said, finally.  “They must develop their character, and their ability to handle the ups and downs of life, before they start tackling the more advanced magics.  An untrained magician incapable of doing so becomes a major threat, as you know.  You’ve certainly killed enough of them.”

I met his eyes.  “Seven years ago, I killed a magician who went mad because he was mistreated,” I said.  It was true, if one overlooked my brothers being involved and quite a few other details.  “He had to die.  At that point, he was a maddened creature who couldn’t be redeemed, who posed a danger so great that imprisoning him was not an option.  But that doesn’t excuse the way he was treated.”

Boscha looked back at me.  “I was treated poorly until I proved myself too,” he said, flatly.  “I turned out alright.”

“And if you were treated poorly and still say that,” I snapped, “it’s proof you didn’t turn out alright.”

Magic spiked.  I thought, for a moment, he was actually going to start a fight.  What I’d said had been cutting and unpleasant, the sort of thing he could use to justify cursing me into next week if I didn’t back down and grovel … I gritted my teeth, readying myself for a fight.  Boscha wasn’t a weakling – he couldn’t have held the wards if he wasn’t amongst the most puissant magicians in the world – but I had a lot of combat experience, particularly at knife-range.  I was fairly sure Boscha was nowhere near as skilled.  His career before Whitehall was something of a mystery – I knew students who thought Boscha was a homunculus – but he’d never given the impression of having any combat experience.  Indeed, the fact he constantly harped on his position was a very strong sign he didn’t feel particularly secure.

“The problem is spreading to my classes,” Mistress Constance said, breaking the stalemate.  “Last week, I had to discipline both Adrian and Walter for throwing dragon’s root into another student’s cauldron, causing an explosion that could have wounded or killed half the class.  Frankly, I am on the verge of banning both students permanently.  Alchemy is dangerous enough at the best of times, when everyone is behaving themselves, and those students are going to get someone killed.”

I kept my face impassive with an effort.  Adrian of House Rawlins and Walter of House Ashworth had been friends practically since birth, two handsome and cocky young men who would have gone far, if they hadn’t turned their magical talent to making everyone else’s lives miserable.  They knew better than to cause trouble in my class, thankfully, but everywhere else … they and their toadies, Jacky McBrayer and Stephen Root, caused havoc.  I lived in hope that, one day, they would cross the line to the point they could be expelled for good.  But they were good at making themselves appear innocent …

“I believed we discussed the matter at the time,” Boscha said.  “They insisted it was an accident.”

“An accident,” Mistress Constance repeated.  I could hear the sneer in her voice.  “A piece of root accidentally levitating itself into the air, and accidentally flying across the chamber and accidentally splashing into another student’s cauldron and triggering a reaction … all accidentally?”

“Unless you have clear proof it was done with murderous intent, you cannot bar them from your classes,” Boscha said.  “There are rules …”

Mistress Constance fixed him with a stern look.  I had to admire Boscha’s nerve, if nothing else.  Mistress Constance was a skilled alchemist as well as a powerful magician and she hadn’t risen to the top of her profession without being extremely driven.  If she’d been looking at me like that I would have feared for my life. 

“They are undisciplined, arrogant and rude,” Mistress Constance said, coldly.  “And foolish too.”

I felt a stab of sympathy.  It was rare for someone to openly look down on a sorceress for being female – it was a good way to end up a toad – and no one did it twice, but Adrian and Walter were disrespectful as hell.  I knew their fathers.  The poisoned apples hadn’t fallen too far from the tree.  Boscha might not take the disrespect seriously – he might not even be aware it was there – but Mistress Constance had no choice.  And she couldn’t teach the little brats the lesson they so sorely needed.

“They are also talented young lads with astonishing potential,” Boscha said.  “They just need some proper guidance.”

“So give it to them,” Mistress Constance said.  “Or tell their parents to send them to Stronghold.”

“Or to Widow’s Peak,” I muttered.  The fact there was a necromancer squatting in the old fortress wasn’t a problem.  Adrian and Walter might think highly of themselves, and they did have quite a bit to brag about, but a necromancer would have no trouble turning them both into a quick snack.  “Why not …”

Daphne cleared her throat.  “Sir, you have a meeting with Lord Archibald Rawlins in ten minutes.”

Boscha nodded.  I wondered if he was glad of the interruption.  “We’ll continue to discuss the matter later,” he said.  I wondered, idly, what matter?  Adrian and Walter … or whatever he’d intended to discuss when he called the meeting.  Two hours sitting at the table … for what?  I still didn’t know.  If it turned out to be something minor, after all that, I was going to be pissed!

The Grandmaster stood and left the room, Daphne following him like a puppy chasing her master.  I stood myself, exchanging brief looks with the others.  We’d had our differences over the last few years, but none of us liked Boscha.  Or his willingness to tolerate the intolerable.  I made a mental note to ask Mistress Constance for a drink later, in my quarters.  If nothing else, we could compare notes and see if we could determine just what our lord and master was doing now.

It nagged at me as I stepped through the door and headed down the maze of stairs and corridors to my classroom.  Boscha … was a puzzle.  I didn’t pretend to understand what he was thinking.  I’d known people from all walks of life, from commoner-born serfs and merchants to princes, kings and magicians, but Boscha didn’t fit any pattern.  Perhaps he really was a homunculus.  Or a dragon in disguise.  Stranger things had happened.  Or so I’d been told.

I stepped into the charms corridor and stopped dead, my instincts flaring before my conscious mind caught up and realised what was wrong.  A banging noise from one of the cupboards … someone was inside.  And that meant …

… Someone was trapped inside.

Updates

21 Jan

A quick update, just in case anyone cares …

(Hey, let me pretend <embarrassed grin>.)

My health took a downturn last month, so I lost two weeks of work and then we had  visitors and Christmas, so I’ve only just completed the draft of Ark Royal 18 – The Lone World.  The provisional title for the next book is Judgement Day.

My schedule has also taking something of a beating, so I have a Fantastic Schools novella to write and then …

Feb – The Demon’s Design (Schooled in Magic 25)

March – Conquistadores (Stand-Alone)

April or May – The Land of Always Summer (The Stranded II – depends on plot and/or interest.)

May or April – A Hope in Hell (Heirs of Cataclysm III).

Or … what would you like?

Chris

OUT NOW – The Magic School Story Bundle!

14 Jan

Including Schooled in Magic, if you haven’t read it already, and Fantastic Schools IV (inc. The Muckraker’s Tale, a Schooled in Magic spin-off).

Click HERE to visit!

OUT NOW – Pandora’s Box (Heirs of Cataclysm II)

21 Dec

It’s not just a box, it’s an ancient weapon capable of destroying entire cities.

Deep within the badlands, warped and twisted by tainted magic and weirdlings, the box was discovered by archaeologists, secret wisdom lost in the Cataclysm. Those who found it are selling it to the highest bidder. If it falls into the wrong hands, their fragile civilization’s uneasy peace will be shattered once and for all.

John, along with his fellow adventurers, are hired to steal this ancient artifact so it can be safely destroyed. But stealing it is one thing, surviving it is another.

Everyone is after them, and they’re on the run, a bounty on their head so large every mercenary, rogue, and even old friends are willing to risk death to claim it.

And nothing is quite what it seems.

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from HERE or HERE.

Book Review: The Burning God

18 Dec

Wrote this earlier, forgot to post

Book Review: The Burning God

-R.F. Kuang

As a general rule, there are three ways to do book trilogies.

You can tell a reasonably coherent story across three novels (The Lord of the Rings).  You can tell a starter story to set the scene, followed by a coherent story across two novels (Island in the Sea of Time).  Or you can switch the setting each time so you’re telling a three-part story that can be read as both a trilogy and a set of stand-alone books (Mistborn)  The third is the most rewarding, if done properly, but it is astonishingly difficult to bring it off without the cracks starting to show.  I am happy to report that Rebecca Kuang’s Poppy War series brings it off magnificently.

The Poppy War is patterned on the history of China over the past two hundred years.  The first book – The Poppy War – is set in an analogue of Imperial China, as the creaking edifice of empire wilts and collapses under an onslaught of invaders and, far more dangerously, it’s own massive structural flaws.  The second – The Dragon Republic –  is set in the Warlord Era, with various military warlords struggling for power against the remnants of the old world and far more powerful and dangerous outsiders.  Third, and finally, The Burning God is set in the Communist era, with analogues to the Long March (in which the communists escaped enemy pursuit by marching through very rough terrain to safety), the fall of the old order and the problems of actually fixing the country after the combination of war and outside interference.

As before, we follow the story through the eyes of Fang Runin – Rin – as she leads the war against the invaders and the old regime, led by one of her old classmates.  Rin – who wields the power of the Phoenix, a god of fire and destruction – is no longer content to be a follower, but has now become a leader – a leader of a vast army of peasants and commoners who may not be as capable as their enemies, but have the numbers to drown the invaders in a sea of bodies.  But as Rin comes to grips with the problems of leadership, and the issues resulting from a country bathed in war and blood, she encounters betrayals as well as enemy fanatics, allies who have their own agendas and enemies who aren’t all bad.  She has her dazzling rises to power, then her fall to crushing lows, then rises to power once again.  She is both a very likeable character and someone constantly teetering on the brink of total insanity. 

This has been a part of her character for all three books, but now it comes into the open.  On one hand, Rin simply can’t give up.  She keeps struggling even when resistance is seemingly futile, not least because she has nowhere to go and no hope of safety.  On the other, she isn’t remotely suited to be the leader of a country and rapidly becomes overwhelmed by the problems facing the ruined empire.  She can’t trust anyone to do it for her, either.  She has simply been betrayed too many times to count. 

Perversely, this works in the book’s favour.  Rin burns away many of the problems facing the empire, from the semi-divine founders of the old empire (who threaten to plunge the world back into chaos) to the deeply corrupt and self-obsessed nobility that made it impossible for the empire to heal itself.  She appears, at least partly by accident, to embrace the doctrine of Kylo Ren – “Let the past die.  Kill it, if you have to” – and this is, at least in the book’s universe, a good idea.  (It was much less so in The Last Jedi, or the real-life aftermath of Imperial China.)  In the end, when it becomes clear that Rin herself has become the final threat to the empire, she deals with herself in an ending that is both fitting and deeply ambiguous.  In some ways, Kuang manages to do what The Last Jedi could not and subvert our expectations in a manner that catches us by surprise, while being perfectly predictable in hindsight.  In others, the ending seems a little unfair.  But then, the world is never fair.

The book spares no effort in depicting the effects of a brutal grinding multisided war.  It shows how people can become accustomed to occupation and the forcible reshaping of their society; it also shows how people can simply give up as resistance becomes futile, a double-edged sword for the occupiers because there may be no resistance, but there is also no energetic crop production.  Famine becomes a very real threat even as the war seems to come to an end.  Rather more strikingly, it shows how a seemingly more advanced society can overwhelm a lesser one, although it isn’t clear how deeply this took root before the invaders were thrown out. 

On a more personal level, the book shows how far desperate soldiers are prepared to go for victory, from the aristocrats casually sentencing millions of peasants to death just to eradicate an uprising to the fighters embracing cannibalism just to stay alive one more day.  Kuang spares us nothing, convincing us the war comes with a high price even though victory might be worth the cost.  And yet victory brings more and more problems in its wake.

I have often said that the truly great books are the ones that combine pulpy elements (action and adventure) with literature, the great ideas that make you stop and think.  The Poppy War trilogy joins a handful of others that rise to the very top and satisfy both the desire for a ripping good yarn and meaning.  That it draws on Chinese elements – rather than Western – helps to give it a sense of freshness that many other works, such as Game of Thrones, lack; it also lacks the grimdark fatalism of many more modern works, the suggestion that – no matter what the characters do – the world will remain an awful place.  Perhaps the one moment where this fails is in the ending, yet that very ambiguity gives it a punch other works simply can’t match.

If there is an underlying theme to the trilogy, it is that you cannot trust anyone to have your best interests in mind.  (A sneaky rebuke of the CCP, perhaps?)  The old rulers are monsters.  The warlords are fighting for their personal power rather than the good of their provinces, let alone the empire as a whole.  The outsiders are colonists, either directly (settlement) or indirectly (cultural reorganisation).  Even the gods have their own agendas.  A secondary theme is that rigid thinking and orthodoxy rarely cope well with the unexpected, from tutors who dismiss Rin because of her country roots to armies and leaders who cannot handle outside context problems such as superior foreign armies with superior weapons.  This is more evident in the second book – where a superior tactician has to give way to an inferior because the inferior is his elder brother – but true of all three … and, of course, one of the reasons China had so many problems when it reencountered the outside world. 

Overall, The Burning God is a good – indeed brilliant – end to The Poppy War trilogy.  I highly recommend it.

Been Unwell …

16 Dec

It’s been an incredibly frustrating couple of weeks.

Basically, I started writing The Lone World and then got ill.  Very ill.  It started as some kind of cold and then progressed to a vomiting bug (my kids caught that one too; they’re better now) and I currently feel as if I have chemo brain again – I don’t have the energy to do much of anything, but I still have to get the kids ready for school and stuff.  To add insult to injury, the antibiotics left me with weird muscle pains in my hands – I feel as if I have splinters in the exact same place on both hands. 

[Insert more whining here <grin>]

Anyway, normal service will be resumed ASAP. 

Merry Christmas to all my readers and if you want to send me a present, I like reviews <grin>

Chris

OUT NOW – The Conjuring Man

8 Dec

Adam has come far.

From a lowly apprentice, and a powerless one at that, he has discovered a whole new field of magic, combining magic and technology into one, and become the leading light of the university.  His innovations have made many other things possible, from powerful magics anyone can use to hot air balloons and flying battleships.  And the world has changed beyond hope of repair.

And yet, the war is not yet over.  King Ephialtes of Tarsier may have lost one army, but he has others – and secret weapons, capable of keeping his aristocrats in check and eventually destroying the university.  As his own people rise in revolt, and Adam and the rest of the university’s population are drawn ever further into the fighting, an old enemy plots his final moves …

… And the final battle between the old world and the new is about to begin.

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then ORDER NOW! And please don’t forget to rate and review!

Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Universal Amazon, Books2Read (multiple bookshops)

Snippet – The Lone World (Ark Royal 19)

5 Dec

Prologue I

From: Admiral Paul Mason, Director of Alpha Black, Special Projects

To: Admiral Susan Onarina, First Space Lord

Note: Personal Message, Top Secret

Susan.

I wish I could offer you a preliminary report on the Dyson System and the Dyson Spheres – one intact and populated, one seemingly in ruins – based on data gathered by HMS Endeavour during her voyage to Dyson.  Unfortunately, I cannot.  The sheer volume of data gathered – which has almost certainly not scratched the surface – makes it impossible to draw any real conclusions.  We are left, instead, with a disturbing mystery.  Frankly, I feel like the fisherman who went fishing for minnows and somehow dragged from the water a very angry shark.  Even if there is no guiding intelligence surviving within the sphere, the fact remains the mere existence of alien supertechnology – still working, after untold millions of years – will upset the balance of power, as well as our understanding of the universe, beyond all hope of repair.

It is hard, even, to know when and where to begin.

Certain things are clear, right from the start.  The Dyson Aliens – termed the Builders – developed gravity control to a level so far in advance of our own that the Catapult, the most advanced gravity manipulation device we have designed and built, looks like nothing more than sticks and stones.  The material they used to build the spheres – termed Unobtainium by someone who clearly had too much time on his hands – has defied analysis, but is effectively indestructible, at least to human technology.  They use focused gravity beams to steer objects around the interior of the sphere – termed Fists – and, we assume, laid down an extended tramline.  We can also deduce that they are capable of both opening wormholes on a planetary scale – every star system near Dyson has been largely swept clear, with nothing larger than a small comet logged by human probes – and using gravity beams to tear apart planets and asteroids for raw materials.  I submit to you that it is not in Britain’s interests to let anyone get their hands on such technology.

Worse, however, is the presence of human settlers on the intact sphere. 

They are clearly human, although there are some divergent traces in their DNA that suggests they were taken from Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago.  (Their architecture bears a certain resemblance to Native American designs, specifically Aztec, Inca and Maya, but we believe this is merely a coincidence.)  The simple fact we encountered them on the very first – unplanned – landing on the sphere suggests human settlements are widespread, although we cannot be sure.  The possibility of running into other species – known and unknown – cannot be ruled out.  Long-range sensors were inconclusive and indeed, there is some speculation that the Builders were actively interfering with the sensors.  It cannot be proven one way or the other. 

We don’t know why these humans were taken from Earth and settled on the sphere.  We do know that they were placed in a trap.  They lack the raw materials to develop anything more advanced than bows and arrows – before our team arrived, they didn’t even have the wheel – and there was no hope of them ever managing to climb out of the gravity well.  It is true that certain mountains on the sphere reach up into low orbit, or the local counterpart, but anyone without proper survival gear would perish well before they reached a point where they could launch themselves into space.  Even if they did, the automated defences would likely fire on them.  It was very lucky, to say the least, that Endeavour was able to recover her crewmen and escape before she was destroyed. 

It is easy to argue that the Builders passed through the Sol System hundreds of thousands of years ago and that they are no longer around today.  The apparent collapse of Dyson One – and the presumed death of its entire population – certainly suggests the Builders are no longer interested in maintaining their technology.  That may be true, although the mere fact that someone kidnapped a breeding population from Earth should be worrying even if they became extinct long before we had even the merest hint of their existence.  Did they want to preserve samples of our biosphere (and presumably others)?  Did they want to save us from ourselves, as some insist, or did they want to put humans in zoos?  We have done as much, to species we considered lesser – and to a species that builds on their scale, we must look very lesser indeed.

And yet, we are left with a disturbing mystery.  The Builders were clearly interested in monitoring the Virus, without seeming to do anything to stop it.  They left artefacts of unknown purpose within a number of systems, artefacts that were only discovered through chance.  (I should add, at this point, that some researchers believe it wasn’t chance; the artefacts chose to reveal themselves to us.)  If there are similar artefacts within our own systems, and those of our alien allies, they have yet to be found.  I am not optimistic about locating them, if indeed they exist.  They may be remarkable, but they are little more than dust motes on the scale of an entire solar system.

I believe that solving the mystery behind the Dyson Spheres and their Builders must now become our priority.  It is vitally important we track down the Builders to ask them some pointed questions, or confirm to our own satisfaction that they are truly gone.  A secondary priority, of course, is to master their technology for ourselves.  If we succeed in doing so, there will be no limited; contrariwise, if someone else masters it first, the entire Royal Navy will become obsolete overnight.  The alien energy weapons, observed during the first exploration of the sphere, are powerful enough to slice through a battleship effortlessly … and that, I’m afraid, is only just scratching the surface.  We could be on the brink of a full-fledged Lensmen Arms Race – or about to be crushed effortlessly.  It did not take even a day for my researchers to come up with interesting and lethal uses of observed alien technology.  I dare say other countries are already coming up with their own ideas.

With that in mind, I have the following suggestions …

Prologue II: Beijing, China

There were no visible security measures, as Admiral He Tianya stepped into the government penthouse, but he wasn’t fool enough to think they didn’t exist.  The city had been the core of China’s Government for so long the security forces had no trouble in controlling everything from the government complexes to the universities, factories and the slums beyond the security barriers.  There was no privacy, not even for the elite.  Nothing was said or done, nothing at all, that was not recorded in a government database and cross-checked by algorithms primed to watch for potential dissidents.  It was impossible for dissidents to exist, he’d been assured; the slightest hint of dissidence was enough to get someone exiled to the work camps, or simply blacklisted until they saw fit to submit themselves for re-education. And the algorithms were never wrong …

He schooled his face into a blank mask as he looked around the luxurious office, promising himself – once again – that one day he’d have such an office himself.  No expense had been spared, from the wooden desk to the comfortable chairs, drinks cabinet and fancy paintings lining the walls.  A couple had been changed, he noted, since his last visit.  His eyes lingered on the missing faces, all too aware it was the only clue he’d have to how power had shifted over the last few months.  The committee’s inner workings and debates were never shared with outsiders.  Their decisions, when they made them, were presented unanimously.

“Admiral,” the Chairman said.  His voice was soft, almost polite, with nary a hint he could have Tianya – or anyone – dragged away and shot on a whim.  He looked like a businessman in a simple black suit, but it was so elegantly tailored that anyone who looked at him would know he was a man of wealth and power.  “Please.  Be seated.”

Tianya took a seat, bracing himself.  It was unlikely he’d been summoned for a dressing down from the Chairman himself, not when he knew he’d done nothing worthy of a private scolding.  Besides, if he had, he’d have been quietly escorted away and disappeared.  No one would have lifted a finger in his defence, if the committee wanted him gone.  And that meant …

The Chairman said nothing for a long moment, then tapped his console.  A holographic image appeared in front of them, a pair of Dyson Spheres.  Tianya fought to keep his expression under tight control.  The spheres were a work of engineering so far in advance of humanity’s that he knew there was no way they could be matched, not now and perhaps never.  He’d heard the early reports, passed through international communications channels, and wondered – despite himself – if they were hoaxes.  It wouldn’t be the first time someone had reported something incredible, and impossible.  Giant alien starships, omnipotent entities bent on testing humanity … none, somehow, allowing themselves to be recorded.  But if the Chairman believed the spheres were real.

“The British dispatched a deep-space survey vessel into the region beyond Virus Prime,” the Chairman said.  “Our intelligence suggested they knew something and so we assigned a starship to shadow their ship at a safe distance.  Haikoufollowed them through an impossible tramline and found an even more impossible pair of Dyson Spheres; one cracked and broken, the other with a human population.  I would not have believed it if we hadn’t had reports from our own ship.”

“Yes, sir,” Tianya said.  His mind raced.  Why was the Chairman discussing the matter with him?  It had been highly-classified, of course – he hadn’t heard anything about the spheres on the public datanet and he doubted he ever would – but it didn’t need the Chairman’s personal attention.  “The report is quite remarkable.”

“Yes,” the Chairman agreed.  “Advanced technology, at least thousands of years old, and still functional.  Could anything of ours last so long?”

Tianya considered it, briefly.  “No, sir,” he said.  “Certainly nothing on the same scale.”

“And the potential of the technology is staggering,” the Chairman added.  For the first time, there was a hint of emotion in his voice.  “What could we do with such power?  What could we not do?”

“It would be incredible,” Tianya agreed, studying the hologram.  The largest man-made structure was the Heinlein Shipyard, put together by the United States Navy … and the Dyson Spheres made it look like a children’s toy.  “We could do anything.”

The Chairman nodded, slowly.  Tianya looked at him and had a sudden flash of insight.  The Chairman was as close to omnipotent as any human ever became, a man with more personal power than anyone else on the planet.  The American President or the British Prime Minister were powerful, too, but their power was hedged by checks and balances designed to prevent them from becoming tyrants.  The Chairman had no such formal barriers to supreme power.  As long as he was careful, and kept the committee from uniting against him, he could do pretty much whatever he liked.  China was lucky, Tianya supposed, that the Chairman had few vices.  He could have surrounded himself with wealth beyond the dreams of the empires of old, a harem of women, or … or anything, anything at all.  Power was his one real vice …

… And the Builders made him look like an ant.

Tianya had been a spacer too long to risk deluding himself.  The Builders had casually dismantled a number of planets, just to build a pair of Dyson Spheres.  The Builders had warped space itself, laying down at least one extended tramline, and swept the known universe and beyond for intelligent life to populate their spheres.  He had no idea if the dismantled worlds had had intelligent life of their own – intelligence was relatively rare – but there was no way to be sure.  China was a superpower, one of the three most powerful nations on Earth and beyond, and the Builders could crush her effortlessly.  They might not even notice!  And the Chairman, the most powerful man on the planet, was nothing to them.

It was hard, even for an experienced officer, to keep his thoughts under control.  The sheer size of the sphere was daunting.  How much worse must it be, he wondered, to climb to the top of the tree, only to discover it wasn’t the biggest tree in the wood?  He’d wondered, once, why so many of his ancestors hadn’t tried to adapt, when the westerners arrived to impose unequal treaties and threaten to carve up their country into colonies.  He knew now.  And the gulf between China and the West had been tiny, compared to the gap between mankind and the Builders.  It might never be surmounted.

“You have been selected for a very special mission,” the Chairman said.  “If you succeed, and return in triumph, you will be rewarded with a seat on the committee.  If you fail, and survive, you will be disowned.”

Tianya felt his heart begin to race.  A seat on the committee …?  A chance to take his place amongst the most powerful men in the country?  A wife from a powerful bloodline, children educated amongst the elite and groomed to replace them?  He’d kill for such a reward.  It was worth any risk …

The Chairman kept speaking.  “The British have technically broken the Solar Treaty.  Technically.  We have kindly refrained from making a fuss, save for lodging a single diplomatic protest.  Indeed, we have pretended to accept their excuses on the matter and agreed to let it rest.  For now.  We have chosen to do so because we want to send our own people to Dyson, in the spirit of international cooperation.  You will assume command of our team and, possibly, receive a position within the Multi-National Force command structure.  We will make a big show of cooperating with the rest of humanity.”

He paused, and met Tianya’s eyes.  “No one will know you have other orders.”

Tianya took a breath.  He wasn’t blind to the risks.  If the mission failed, there would be no rewards.  Not for him.  He’d be blamed for the catastrophe, declared a rogue agent and effectively unpersoned.  His victories would be given to someone else, his family would be told they no longer had a son, his friends and enemies alike would know to pretend he’d never really existed … if the reward was so high, the punishment for failure would be truly dreadful.  No wonder the Chairman was giving Tianya his orders in person, rather than letting them be passed through the regular chain of command.  If the mission failed, no one outside a very select circle would ever know it had ever been attempted.

The reward is worth the risk, he told himself.  If he failed, it would be better to eat his own gun than return home.  I can do it.

The Chairman smiled, very slightly.  His tone was very formal.  “Admiral.  This is what I want you to do …”

Chapter One: London, United Kingdom

“And thank God that’s over,” Admiral Lady Susan Onarina said, as she strode into her suite and closed the door behind her.  “I thought it would never end.”

“Cruel and unusual punishment?”  Admiral Paul Mason sat on a sofa, reading the latest set of reports from the Alpha Black team.  “How badly are we fucked?”

Susan shrugged off her jacket and switched on the kettle.  Technically, as a flag officer, she was entitled to a private steward, but she’d never been particularly comfortable around servants.  Having one onboard ship was a marvellous time saver, yet having one in London bred indolence and bad attitudes.  Besides, it wasn’t as if she could take her servants when her when she finally retired.  She didn’t have the funds to maintain them.

“Not as badly as you might expect,” she said, as she found a pair of mugs and dropped teabags into them.  “The Russians have lodged a series of formal complaints, demanding everything from monetary compensation to our exclusion from the research team, but they’re more or less alone.  The Americans have tutted and the French have muttered angrily, yet there’s no appetite for any real sanctions.”

Mason caught her eye.  “The Chinese said nothing?”

“They just lodged a single protest,” Susan said.  It was odd, to say the least.  The Chinese Government was known for being prickly, although it was also known for evading the spirit of the law whenever it thought it could get away with it.  “The Foreign Office believes the Chinese don’t want to have to explain why they didn’t blow the whistle on us, given that they clearly knew we were up to something.  We could certainly hint we let the Chinese find out deliberately, or so they argue.”

“No one would buy that,” Mason objected.  “It’s insane.”

Susan made a face.  MI5 had been going through the handful of people who knew about the artefacts, and the map leading to Dyson, but so far they’d drawn a blank.  The spy, if there was a spy, remained resolutely unidentified.  And that meant … she hatred the thought of the Chinese corrupting one of her people, but if they’d managed to break the navy’s encryption codes it would be a great deal worse.  How many secrets had been accidentally shared, because the navy thought its codes were unbreakable?  The Chinese had hinted it was just a coincidence – Haikou just happened to be following Endeavour – but Susan would believe that the day she had her head cut off and replaced with a cabbage.  No one would dispatch a cruiser on a long-term shadowing mission like that unless they expected the survey ship to find something a great deal more interesting than an uninhabited or infected world. 

No, she thought grimly.  They knew the mission was more than just a routine survey flight before the vessel was dispatched.

“People have been known to believe seventeen impossible things before breakfast,” she said, pouring boiling water into the mugs.  “It might make the Chinese a little more suspicious of anything they get from their spy.  If there is a spy.”

“Hah,” Mason said.  “They already know the bastard’s reliable.”

He took the mug she passed him and sat back on the sofa.  “So … how bad is it?”

“There are already a bunch of private parties heading out to the spheres,” Susan said.  “The Admiralty has declared a no-entry zone, and the other countries have followed suit, but hardly anyone is paying attention.  The belters don’t recognise our authority in such matters, the lesser powers feel excluded and the big corporations think they can get away with defying us if they find something within the system they can use as a bargaining chip.  It’s only a matter of time before the Tadpoles or the Foxes get involved – they probably have ships on their way already.  The government intends to act decisively.”

Mason shrugged.  “They do realise just how big the binary system is, don’t they?”

“Um … maybe?”  Susan smiled, although she felt little real humour.  “They don’t know what to think.  They’re hypnotised by the thought of someone stumbling across an alien database, unlocking it and finding a complete how-to-build-a-sphere guide.”

“And the odds of that are …?”

“Incalculable,” Susan said.  “If you picked up a book on Earth, what are the odds of it telling you how to build a starship?”

She sighed as she sipped her tea.  Groundhogs didn’t – couldn’t – understand the sheer size of a star system.  The biggest starship humanity had built and launched was infinitesimally tiny compared to Earth, let alone the rest of the system.  The two spheres encompassed a vast amount of space and sorting through the ruined sphere alone would take centuries, if they were lucky.  It might be impossible to catalogue and survive every last piece of debris.  The odds of finding a database, and working out how to read it, were low.

But the politicians think it isn’t impossible and they might be right, Susan thought.  We simply don’t know.

“You could learn a lot about us from reading a random book,” Mason pointed out.  “Our hopes and fears.  How our culture works.  What we can imagine … maybe not the best example, but still …”

“It depends,” Susan said.  “Remember those books that got passed around in the academy?”

Mason snorted.  “The aliens will take one look … and declare war.”

“Probably.”  Susan took another sip of her tea.  “Bottom line is, we’re going back to the sphere.  Quite why it took two months to make a decision every last member of the international community knew was inevitable right from the start is beyond me, but” she shrugged – “we’re going back.  Once we get there, the MNF will assume control of the twin system and chase everyone else out, then proceed to investigate the spheres.  Everyone who takes part in the mission will have full access to everything we find, which probably won’t keep people from cheating if they think they can get away with it.”

“Of course not,” Mason said.  “And the plan to settle the sphere?”

“Discarded, for the moment,” Susan said.  “Hopefully, no one will ever try.”

She scowled as she remembered the landing party’s report.  The sphere was a trap.  The locals lacked metals and chemistry and could never progress beyond a certain point, let alone climb out of the sphere’s gravity well and into orbit.  They were completely at the mercy of whoever had built the sphere, unable to escape if the technology failed a second time.  Susan had spent longer considering the implications of that than she wanted.  Was the sphere a wilderness preserve, a zoo, or a prison?  The latter worried her.  Who would want to lock up the human race?

“The Americans nominated Admiral Dismukes as Mission Commander,” she said, changing the subject.  “We supported them, as did the French, so he’ll probably be in overall command of the deployment.  The Chinese are pushing hard to nominate his deputy and they’ll probably succeed.  The Russians are backing them and the French are likely to do so when the time comes.  I doubt we’ll be able to get someone in the higher chain of command.  We already have the ambassadorial post.”

Mason looked thoughtful.  “Admiral Dismukes?  Do we know him?”

“The files are a little vague,” Susan said.  “There’s no mention of any major naval commands during the wars.  Apparently, he was in command of the Foreign Technology Division until recently.  My guess is he’s your counterpart.”

“Probably,” Mason said.  “Alpha Black and the FTD do pretty much the same thing.  He’s a good choice, if he’s deeply invested in their work.”

“Perhaps,” Susan said.  “He may be more of a bureaucrat or politician than a military leader.”

“Or a diplomat,” Mason pointed out.  “He’ll have to get people from at least five countries working together and keep them reasonably honest, even when they have one hell of an incentive to cheat.”

Susan scowled.  “Quite.”

She leaned forward.  “What do you make of it?”

“Truth is, I don’t know where to begin.”  Mason stared down at his empty mug.  “The Tadpoles were more advanced than us, when we met them, but we closed the gap fairly quickly.  The Foxes and the Cows were at roughly the same level, save for the FTL transmitters.  So was the Virus.  The Vesy, of course, were a long way behind when they discovered us, or – more accurately – we discovered them.  And the result was shattering.”

Susan grimaced.  There’d been loud voice demanding the Vesy be left alone, to grow and develop on their own, but they’d been drowned out by people insisting the Vesy be u[lifted to match humanity and the other known intelligent races.  The results had been decidedly mixed.  There had been some improvements, but the native culture had taken a beating and there was a very real risk that it would never recover.  Susan suspected the Vesy might never make something of themselves, not now.  They’d just grow into a carbon copy of their human masters. 

“You think that could happen to us?”  Susan didn’t want to believe it, but she had to admit the possibility.  Her ancestors hadn’t coped well with meeting a more advanced society.  “That we could be just … overshadowed by the Builders?”

“They built a pair of Dyson Spheres,” Mason pointed out.  “They extended a tramline or created one … somehow.  What else can they do?  Could we do that, if we tried?”

“No.”  Susan didn’t have to think about it.  “Not yet.”

“Yes,” Mason agreed.  “And they took humans from their homeworld and set them up on the sphere.  There’s already people claiming the Builders built us.”

Susan snorted.  “Don’t they know how evolution works?”

“No.”  Mason chuckled.  “Why do you ask?”

“They’re mad,” Susan said.  “The idea of humans being created by an alien race …”

Mason stood and poked the terminal.  “The concept of creator gods has been around for a very long time,” he said, softly.  “We used to believe in gods that were bigger and nastier humans.  Some think those humanoid gods were actually eldritch creatures who adapted to us.  Later, we came up with the idea of a single all-powerful creator god, surrounded by a host of angels and threatened by devils.  When we came up with the concept of aliens, the idea of aliens watching over us – or threatening us – was easily worked into the myths.  There were quite a few stories of aliens kidnapping humans over the years.  They faded and died shortly after we started exploring the solar system.”

Susan gave him an odd look.  “And your point?”

“My point is that everyone wants to believe in something watching out for them, even if it is Grandfather God looking down from on high or a benevolent alien race keeping an eye in us from a safe distance,” Mason said.  “And now we’ve discovered the spheres, it is clear that at least one alien race did keep an eye on us.”

The terminal came to life.  Mason switched channels quickly until he found a news program and turned up the volume.  “… Protesters clashed in New York today, between groups that believed the Dyson System should be left completely alone and their rivals, who want to be transported to the sphere to join their comrades in safety.  The Mayor has made an official statement warning that rioting will not be tolerated; elements of the National Guard are reportedly mobilising to clear the streets.  Similar protests were reported in London, Paris, Berlin and …”

“Charming,” Susan said.  “And what do we do about it?”

“I doubt we can do anything about it,” Mason said.  “It’s something deep within the human mind.  All we can do is try to cope.”

“I see,” Susan said.  “And what if they’re just super-advanced aliens?”

She scowled as the images shifted, showing protesters clashing with counter-protestors and then being overwhelmed by the police.  “If the Builders saw that, what do you think they’d think?”

Mason shrugged.  “The Tadpoles don’t understand our politics, any more than we understand theirs,” he said.  “The Builders might not understand what’s happening too.”

“At a speech today, Professor Justice Billycock insisted the human race must prepare itself for meeting a far more advanced species,” the TV presenter continued.  “He stated we must attempt to fix our problems, rather than exporting them into space and infecting the rest of a pristine galaxy.  The speech …”

“Turn it off,” Susan said.  She sat back in her chair and finished her tea.  It was bad enough being lectured by her fellow officers, but at least they knew what they were talking about.  Academics, in her experience, knew little about the real world and cared less … and then acted all surprised when their grand plans ran into reality and shattered.  “The Builders are advanced, true, and somehow their technology is still active even if they’re no longer with us.  But they are not gods.  The gap is not insurmountable.”

“The Vesy might disagree,” Mason said, dryly.

“They could match us, given time,” Susan objected.

“They don’t have time,” Mason said.  “It took us … what …?  Three hundred thousand years to climb from the earliest days of the human race to the stars?  If that … there’s a lot we don’t know about what happened that long ago, or how things really were back then.  Even if we count from the birth of Jesus, it still took over two thousand years to reach the stars.  The Vesy won’t have much of their culture left by the time they join us …”

He scowled.  “And what’ll happen to us if we meet a race so far advanced their tech might as well be magic?”

His eyes narrowed.  “There was a comic book I read once, when I was ill.  Very ill.  It was very silly.  King John and his baddies were facing an alien invasion, or so they thought.  They came up with a bunch of truly silly ideas to fight the aliens, from nets carried by pigeons to … even sillier ideas.  None of them would have worked for a moment, if the aliens had been anything other than a figment of their imagination.”

Susan raised her eyebrows.  “And how old were you when you read this book?”

“My point is, the king in the book couldn’t even begin to comprehend what he was facing,” Mason said.  “The most advanced piece of technology in his world was a crossbow.  He knew nothing about steam power, let alone atoms and nuclear power and … I don’t even think he knew the Earth was a sphere.  He might not have.”

“They knew the Earth was a globe far earlier than we think,” Susan pointed out.  “The king might well have known the truth.”

“It would have been played for humour,” Mason said.  “Point is, the Builders know things we can imagine without truly understanding how to turn them into reality.  But what are we missing?  What do they know that we can’t even imagine?  I can’t imagine!”

Susan had to laugh.  “We will catch up with them,” she said.  “One day.”

“Yeah,” Mason agreed.  “And what will they do if they think we’re catching up?”

He made a face.  “They took humans from Earth, years ago.  Why?  They then put those humans on a sphere specifically designed to forestall the development of anything more advanced than bows and arrows.  The poor bastards have very few ways to advance and almost all of them require a mindset they lack, a mindset they have been deliberately prevented from developing.  I don’t know if the sphere truly is a zoo, but … what would we do if a lion escaped from the zoo and started prowling the streets?”

“We’d hunt the beast down, and quickly,” Susan said.  “Are you saying you think they might be hostile?”

“The lion would think we were,” Mason said.  “One moment, he’s strolling down the street; the next, some bastard shoots him in the rump with a tranquilliser dart and he wakes up in the zoo, wondering what happened to him.  The poor beast doesn’t understand modern society – in fact, he might not even realise he was in a zoo until he broke out.  There are horror stories about that, you know.  They’re required reading in Alpha Black.”

“I think I’m going to audit your department,” Susan teased.  “Do you spend all your time reading?”

“No.”  Mason grinned.  “We watch television too, sometimes.”

“I’m definitely going to audit you,” Susan said.  “What’s your point?”

Mason met her eyes.  “We know nothing about the Builders.  Their tech is so advanced we can barely comprehend half of it and we cannot hope to duplicate it.  They may think we’re nothing more than zoo animals.  They may even have assumed we’d blow ourselves up, or the virus would have overwhelmed us, or something – anything – other than climbing the ladder into space.  The odds might even be on their side, too.  It took us a long time to get into space and there were a lot of false starts.  They might have assumed the humans they took and preserved would be the only survivors, and be surprised to discover they were wrong.”

He scowled.  “And what will they do if they find out we’re poking around the spheres?”

Susan looked back at him.  “One of their spheres died,” she said.  She didn’t want to think about the uncounted millions who might have perished with the sphere.  “They are powerful, but they are not gods.  They may not even be around any longer.”

“Perhaps,” Mason said.  “It would be wiser to leave the spheres alone, wouldn’t it?”

“Wiser?”  Susan shook her head.  “It doesn’t matter.  Ships will be going to the spheres, whether we like it or not.  All we can do is try to keep control of the process … and ensure that everything discovered is shared, before someone tries to do something stupid.”

“Like summoning the Builders,” Mason said.  “Or … who knows?”

“That’s the problem,” Susan said.  “No one knows.”

Pre-Order Now – The Conjuring Man

3 Dec

Out Dec 6th!

Adam has come far.

From a lowly apprentice, and a powerless one at that, he has discovered a whole new field of magic, combining magic and technology into one, and become the leading light of the university.  His innovations have made many other things possible, from powerful magics anyone can use to hot air balloons and flying battleships.  And the world has changed beyond hope of repair.

And yet, the war is not yet over.  King Ephialtes of Tarsier may have lost one army, but he has others – and secret weapons, capable of keeping his aristocrats in check and eventually destroying the university.  As his own people rise in revolt, and Adam and the rest of the university’s population are drawn ever further into the fighting, an old enemy plots his final moves …

… And the final battle between the old world and the new is about to begin.

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then PRE-ORDER NOW!

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