The Readers Want To Read

6 Feb

The Readers Want To Read

A bit of a ramble, but I think it’s a valid point.

One of the things I have given some thought to, as my career has developed, is ways of increasing reader participation.  I’d like to have a self-sustaining community of readers following me – I can dream, can’t I?  What do you mean, no?  <grin>.

It isn’t easy.  Most of the things I could do to improve reader interaction would require me to take time away from actually writing.  I could name a couple of authors who spent more time writing articles than developing their work, finishing their ongoing novels and suchlike.  It works in the short term – sometimes – but readers slip away when they decide the writer isn’t going to finish the much-promised book.  And the days when I could afford to spend all of my time on the internet are long gone.  I have family responsibilities now.  Someone being wrong on the internet is no longer a world-class emergency <grin>.

The more practical problem, however, is that the vast majority of readers don’t want to do anything more than read.  They don’t want to do anything more.  My most successful book – Ark Royal – has sold over 120K copies.  However, it only has around 2000-3000 reviews on Amazon US/UK.  (I say around because the system doesn’t seem to draw any line between ratings and actual reviews.)  The reviews range between ‘great book’ to ‘what was Nuttall drinking when he wrote this piece of crud?’  But only a small percentage of readers bothered to leave any sort of review at all.

By my estimate, only 1-10% of readers leave a review (positive or negative).  Smaller percentages follow me on Amazon, or Facebook, or my blog. The percentage of people who engage with my posts is a tiny fraction of my readers.  And I think this is true for the really big authors too.  The Harry Potter community fandom is huge, but it’s only a tiny percentage of people who actually bought and read the books.  There’s a vast number of people who don’t want to write fan fiction, argue over Rowling’s politics … or do anything, really, beyond reading the books.

This has led me to a conclusion that flies in the face of common wisdom amongst the chattering (and shouting) classes.  The woke throw fits at the merest hint of cultural appropriation, characters who don’t match the author’s race/religion/nationality/whatever.  Judging by the amount of shouting on the internet, every time one of these teapot-tempests arises to poison the well still further, this is deadly important.  The merest hint of cultural appropriation – or whatever – is a crisis.  The author has committed an unpardonable sin.

Really?  I think – based on my experiences as both a reader and a writer – that the vast majority of the readers simply don’t care.

Think about it for a moment.  You go to a bookshop – or a library or Amazon or wherever – and you find a neat-looking book.  The cover could be anything from exploding starships to magic girls in fancy outfits.  The blurb promises action and adventure (or whatever floats your boat.)  And the author … you’ve never heard of him.  You don’t know anything about him.  Are you going to spend an hour researching him on the net, tracking down his bio and tweets and whatever?  Or are you just going to take the book home and read it?

The vast majority of readers will take the book home and try it.  I don’t think there are many readers, relatively speaking, who will waste time trying to decide if the author is worthy of their time.  Believe me, anyone who does that isn’t a true reader.  The readers will read the book and decide if they like it.  If they do, they’ll keep an eye out for more books by that author.  If they don’t … no harm, no foul.

This has implications that go a lot further than one might suppose.  Fiction is, by definition, fiction.  The average reader does not care if the writer of a book set in Imperial China – with or without the serial numbers filed off – is Chinese.  They don’t care if the writer visited China and researched extensively, or used the internet, or simply made his facts out of whole cloth.  They just ask to be entertained.  They don’t particularly care about accuracy.  Indeed, in some ways, excessive accuracy can detract from the story.  A massive infodump can break up the flow of the story.

Right now, there are people making a fuss about a novel called American Dirt.  Much of the fuss about it, as far as I can tell, rests on the fact the author isn’t Mexican herself.  I don’t believe the vast majority of readers care about the author.  They don’t care about her personally; they don’t care where she was born, or where she was raised, or practically anything about her.  The only thing they care about is the story itself.  Is it any good?

I keep hearing about writers being declared ‘problematic’ for one reason or another and it always makes me roll my eyes.  I am a reader.  I’ve read – and enjoyed – books by authors who disagree with me about politics, religion and just about everything else.  I don’t care about an author’s politics (or whatever).  If I like their books, I read them.  If not … there are plenty more books on the shelf.

And when someone comes to me and says ‘this author is bad, you shouldn’t read them and no one else should either’ my hackles rise.

Everyone is entitled to their opinions.  They’re not entitled to have their opinions treated as gospel truth.  (If you want to convince me of something, you actually have to convince me).  I know a gay man who complains about women writing slash fiction.  He claims the women – who aren’t gay men – keep getting it wrong.  Is he right?  I don’t know.  Maybe someone from a minority community can do a better job of writing a character from such a community than an outsider.  There’s a strong case to be made that that is actually true.  But trying to ban outsiders from writing such characters merely poisons the well.

Remember what I said about the readers not caring?  They don’t, by and large, know if there’s any author-related controversy unless someone points it out.  They might not take the controversy very seriously, even if someone does point it out.  What looks serious to the woke might be pointless to everyone else.  Or they might reason that they learned to love the author before the truth came out and they can hardly be blamed for not knowing something that was common sense at the time.  Or they might see the controversy as an unwelcome intrusion into their reading time and ignore it.  Why should they not?

The readers just want to read.  And they’ll pay no attention to someone who presumes to scold them.  And that, if you ask me, is a good thing.

Review: Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter

4 Feb

Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter

The key to understanding the popularity of graphic novels like Asterix and TinTin – and also books like the Hardy Boys – is that they combine characters who are largely kids themselves with an adult world that takes them (more or less) seriously.  On one hand, Asterix is clearly drawn to resemble a child in his early teens – he’s easily the shortest character in the series who isn’t an actual child – but, on the other hand, he’s the foremost warrior in the village, a guile hero who outsmarts his enemies as much as he beats them with his fists and a member of the village council.  TinTin is drawn to look like his in his mid-teens – he’s often referred to as the ‘boy reporter’ – yet he’s treated as an adult by just about everyone.  Such characters work, at least in part, because they combine adulthood with childhood.  Children can pretend to be them without any adult issues to gross them out.

This leads to some awkward issues when the opposite sex is introduced.  Sex itself does not feature in such books.  The main characters either shun female company – the relationship between TinTin and Captain Haddock is a male friendship, not a romance – or find it unwanted.  In TinTin, the only female character of note is Bianca Castafiore and she is a guest star rather than one of the main characters.  In Asterix, the hero finds himself locking horns in one story with a female bard (who, if the genders were reversed, would certainly be guilty of sexual harassment at the very least.)  The story highlights double-standards and the general unfairness of life, tropes that would have been very important to the target audience in many ways.  People outside the target audience tended to accuse the writer of sexism.

But, generally speaking, romance doesn’t really exist within the series.  The characters, whatever their actual age, remain suspended in early adolescence.  It’s why they appeal to preteen boys.

Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter turns all that on its head.

The basic plot is fairly simple.  The remnants of the Gaullist resistance have been sheltering Adrenalin, the daughter of Vercingetorix, ever since the disastrous defeat at Alesia.  Now, the Romans are closing in on her and there’s only one place she can be safe.  Britain?  America?  No, the unnamed village that plays host to Asterix and his friends.  The problem, however, is that Adrenalin doesn’t want to be a figurehead for the resistance.  She wants to run away, which is fraught with danger as the Romans, the pirates and a small horde of traitors want her for themselves.  Asterix is assigned to look after her, a mission that rapidly turns sour when Adrenalin befriends the other teenagers in the village and they try to help her escape.

On the face of it, the story has potential.  There are many funny moments and a handful of new characters (including the teenage sons of the village fisherman and blacksmith, neither of whom were mentioned before).  However, it falls apart when Asterix is used as a wholly adult character.  His role in the story is to be both adult and child.  Here, he’s the old fogy, the stick-in-the-mud, the person who tries to keep the kids from doing what they want to do.  It’s not a good role for him and it weakens the story.

The story also suffers because of Adrenalin herself.  It’s entirely understandable why she wants to run away – everyone treats her as a thing, rather than a person – but she also comes across as a selfish little brat.  She doesn’t want to carry on her father’s legacy, either with the resistance or by joining Julius Caesar’s family (Brutus gets a nice line about not being one for families … while sharpening a dagger, naturally).  The story even implies the resistance won’t have any trouble finding another figurehead, which suggests they didn’t need to bother with Adrenalin.  But, at the same time, the Romans were hardly going to let her travel freely.  The resistance leaders had a very good point when they insisted she needed to be protected. 

The story might have worked better, I suppose, if Adrenalin had talked Asterix into waging war on Rome, leaving the older villagers to be the voices of adult reason.  But this would have required Asterix to be separated from the adults … again, weakening the character. 

Overall, the story is definitely a mixed bag.  There are plenty of good moments.  It’s amusing to see the two teenage boys insisting on swapping roles and apprenticing with each other’s father, rather than carrying on the family trade.  The artwork is good, although not perfect.  But the overall story weakens the main characters and has too many references to modern-day things that will leave the story outdated fairly quickly.  It isn’t as bad as Asterix and the Falling Sky, but it’s no Asterix in Britain either.

Guest Post: Geography and War In Battle for the Wastelands

22 Jan

Geography and War In Battle for the Wastelands

By Matthew W. Quinn

One major influence on human culture and warfare is geography. Great Britain’s tradition of having a large navy without a large army — and thus a stronger history of constitutional government instead of military strongmen — emerged from being an island difficult to invade from mainland Europe. Meanwhile, the Eurasian steppes, too dry for farming but perfect for livestock, allowed for the rise of the great pastoral cultures like the Scythians, Huns, and Mongols. Like real life, geography plays a major role in the cultures and the events of my new novel Battle for the Wastelands.

Battle takes place in the Northlands, a realm bounded by “the mountains and the deserts and the sea.” To the north rises massive mountain ranges that nobody has ever crossed, or at least crossed and returned. The east and west are bounded by large oceans, while to the south is the vast and terrifying Iron Desert. Although the trading city-state of Everett lies off the western coast and there is intermittent contact with civilizations south of the desert, the Everetti are very good at keeping their secrets and the desert is extraordinarily difficult to cross. This makes the goods brought across by nomadic traders even more expensive and thus fascinating, an effect much like the goods of China brought at great expense along the Silk Road had on medieval Europe. And so the realms south of the Iron Desert are a deeply interesting target for the coalition of warlords commanded by the military dictator Grendel, who has united the Northlands and is now finding his men increasingly difficult to manage without an outside enemy to command them against.

Grendel rules the Northlands from the Basin, a vast region ringed by mountains. The closest real-world analogue to the Basin is the Sichuan Basin in central China. Like Sichuan, the Basin is both a rich region due to farming and industrial cities like Grendel’s capital of Norridge and, owing to its mountainous frontiers, eminently defensible against outside assault. It was the conquest of the Sichuan region by the Qin state in ancient China that played a major role in their defeat of the rival Chu state, which helped transform the Qin family from a regional power to the founders of the first truly imperial Chinese dynasty. Like the Qin and Sichuan, Grendel is not native to the Basin — he hails from Sejera, a coastal region to the west — and it is the joining of this new realm to his original one much like the Qin conquest of Sichuan that makes him a fearsome power decades before Battle begins.

One noted feature of the Basin is the enormous gap in the mountains known as the Pass, much like the Hangu Pass that the Qin fortified and used to check an assault by a coalition of rival Chinese states alarmed at their growing power. Owing to Grendel’s domination of the Basin and the weakness of rivals to its south, this has been an avenue of armies launched against others, but in the event of a reverse this would be a formidable defense, much like the Black Gate of Mordor.

One conquered region south of the Pass was ruled by the Merrill family, which took control in the distant past when a civilization much like ours came to a sudden and unpleasant end. The Merrills ruled along the Grand River, which begins in the mountains ringing the Basin and rolls eastward toward the ocean. The region southeast of the Pass ruled by the Merrills is wide open country and the Merrills, like the ancient steppe peoples, were noted for their cavalry. Although the machine guns and especially the dirigibles of Grendel’s armies broke the Merrills in the open, it is the mobility of the survivors that allowed them to survive and fight years after the fall of the Merrill capital of Jacinto when Battle begins. Though cavalry charges no longer have their old potency in an age of machine guns, the Merrill horsemanship allows virtually their entire army to function as dragoons, moving rapidly on horseback but dismounting to fight. And although aerial reconnaissance and attack make the Merrill remnants less effective, the high plans and badlands where the Grand River valley bleeds into the Iron Desert provide a base for harrying their foes much like a similar environment in West Texas gave the Comanche Nation.

And geography plays a major role in the functioning of the Flesh-Eating Legion, Grendel’s local help in subduing the Grand River valley and main villains of Battle. The Flesh-Eaters hail from the mountainous country northeast of the Merrill realm, a spur of the ranges ringing the Basin. Owing to their homeland’s nature, they are not known for their cavalry, much like how southern Greece where the major classical city-states arose was not known for its cavalry either. Instead the Flesh-Eaters rely on infantry, infantry infamous for their practice of ritualized cannibalism. This too has its origins in geography — mountainous country is not great for farming. In times of want – and the dark years after the collapse of civilization certainly count – the ability of the natives of the region to trade their coal and minerals for food became greatly restricted. So it was that the ancestors of the Flesh-Eaters took up cannibalism and created a faith that made a virtue out of necessity. This faith, ultimately another function of geography, drives their armies to battle and makes them fearsome opponents for Merrill chieftain Alonzo Merrill and Battle protagonist Andrew Sutter, a soldier in his army.

-Matthew W. Quinn is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror based in Atlanta, GA, USA. Battle for the Wastelands is his first independent novel; his horror tale The Thing in the Woods and horror-comedy Little People, Big Guns are through small presses.

OUT NOW: The Ancient Lie: The Unwritten Words II

21 Jan

(Sorry about the delay on this – I caught the flu and still feel rotten)

“I know the words written… But the words unwritten? Those, I don’t know.”


After the campaign in the Summer Isle, Isabella rides out the winter storms by studying the godly magic under Mother Lembu, in the process learning about the origins of the old gods.

Crown Prince Reginald receives word that his father the King is ill and his sister Princess Sofia, acting as regent, is imposing a regime that is strangely similar to what had been happening on the Summer Isle – nobles killed, temples smashed, enforced public worship of old gods. Concerned that his family, and indeed his homeland, are in danger, Reginald is determined to return home.

 But the storms are still raging with what appears to be unnatural force, making any attempt to return to Andalusia too risky for the Prince and his men… unless Isabella can somehow use the new rituals she has learnt to placate the powers behind the storms and navigate the fleet safely home to face whatever has taken control of the kingdom.

Download samples and purchase from the links here!

Musings on Star Wars

17 Jan

Musings on Star Wars

When he devised Star Wars, depending on which version of the story you believe about how much Lucas planned before he started making movies, George Lucas set himself an unusual challenge.  Deliberately or not, he opened in the middle of the story with A New Hope and followed up with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – episodes 4-6 of the overall 9-movie story.  This had both advantages and disadvantages.  A New Hope started with no fans and no following, so Lucas could afford to paper over the cracks in the backstory without upsetting the more nit-picky amongst the audience.  The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had the relatively simple task of building on A New Hope.  The disadvantages, however, were two-fold.

First, the prequel trilogy had to build up to the original trilogy.

Second, the sequel trilogy had to build on both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy.

This was not an easy task.  A New Hope is a relatively simple story, centred around the power trio of Luke, Han and Leia.  Lucas established their characters in broad strokes, either leaving the other characters to the side (Vader, Chewbacca, Wedge, the droids) where they served as plot elements rather than characters in their own right, or killing them off to suit the story (Ben Kenobi, Tarkin).  The Empire Strikes Back allowed more focus on Vader, as well as introducing Lando and the Emperor, because the power trio were already well established and both Lando and the Emperor were relatively minor characters for most of the movie.  Return of the Jedi culminated this trend by bringing the Emperor front and centre, allowing him to drive Vader’s plot and giving Lando a much bigger role.  It also introduced a handful of minor characters that loomed large through the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.

Luke himself served as our viewpoint character for most of the trilogy.  It’s important to realise that Lucas painted Luke as a simple farm boy, dangerously inexperienced as he crawls into a wider universe.  His character and skills develop as we watch.  He makes mistakes, from getting into a bar fight to abandoning his training to save his friends, but his mistakes are understandable.  Han and Leia have less development – Leia certainly comes across as far more mature, even older, than her twin brother – but what little we see makes sense.  Han grows into a hero, almost despite himself; Leia takes control of her surroundings and, when she is put in chains by an alien slug, uses them to strangle him. Leia is a feminist icon for a reason.  Neither she nor either of the other two are Mary Sues.

The movie series might have worked better if Lucas had moved straight to crafting the prequel trilogy.  Instead, Star Wars lay fallow for a few years before giving birth to the Expanded Universe/Legends.  This ranged from the extremely good – the Thrawn and X-Wing books – to the shockingly poor and problematic The Courtship of Princess Leia and the deeply weird The Crystal Star. The canon grew into a colossal universe set between A New Hope and massive interstellar wars deep into the post-ROTJ era.  This was both good and bad for Star Wars.  On one hand, it kept the flame alive and gave birth to all kinds of source material that could be mined for the later movies.  On the other, it created a fandom that had emotionally invested itself in the Expanded Universe/Legends canon, which would be very hard to please when – if – the next set of movies were ever made.  The real problem facing Star Wars Aftermath was not the gay character, but the simple fact that the book was competing with the brilliant Heir to the Empire and lost badly. 

Lucas eventually did make the prequel trilogy.  However, to some extent, his vision was competing with the Expanded Universe/Legends canon too.  (Notice the version of the Clone Wars presented in Heir to the Empire, which has little in common with Attack of the Clones.)  This alone might not have been a major problem.  The Phantom Menace, however, had too many weak spots to please the fandom.  Jake Lloyd, like most child actors, couldn’t live up to the demands placed on him.  (Personally, I’d have started with an older actor and declared Anakin to be in his early teens.)  Add this to a comedic character who isn’t funny – Jar-Jar – and a plot that makes little sense (although it does in hindsight) and you have a recipe for trouble. 

These flaws spread into Attack of the Clones, which had a bad guy of little impact (personally, I like the Darth Jar-Jar theory) and cast a baleful shadow over Revenge of the Sith.  The third of the trilogy is the best, but the actors were unable to cope with the script’s demands they play the doomed romance as true love rather than two young people making a series of mistakes and being unable to cope with it.  That said, the movie does wonders for the Emperor and the trilogy as a whole shows why the Jedi were falling to the dark side long before the Emperor effectively wiped them out.  (If they were stupid enough not to realise that bringing ‘balance to the force’ was probably bad news for them, as they hugely outnumbered the Sith, they probably deserved to lose.)

Still, the flaws in the prequel trilogy didn’t overshadow the original trilogy.  The important characters were amply justified (save Jar-Jar) and relatively few of them survived into the next series.  Those of us who disliked the movies could afford to ignore them.  Not everyone did, of course.  Lucas might have recovered from the problems of The Phantom Menace, but his stock had slipped.  He was no longer seen as a genius by his fans.  Star Wars, in a sense, had outgrown him.  His decision to sell the rights to Disney was, generally, taken as a good thing. 

I still don’t understand how they managed to mess it up.

I do understand one part of it.  They were trying to please both the fans – some of whom became known as the Fandom Menace – and new viewers.  The latter would not be steeped in Star Wars to the point they’d understand elements that grew out of the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.  If they’d gone with a movie version of the Thrawn books, they would have had to explain a lot to new viewers  And yet, they wouldn’t need to do that much explaining.  Luke, Han and Leia are known characters; Mara Jade, Thrawn and C’baoth could be introduced relatively easily (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Thrawn and Pellaeon).  It wouldn’t have been that hard to go through the Expanded Universe/Legends canon, take whatever they wanted and discard the rest.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe did that and it worked very well.

Instead, they discarded practically all of the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.

That was, for me at least, the point where I decided I wasn’t going to get invested in the Disney Wars canon.  I was already irked that some of my favourite comics were being steadily rebooted, time and time again.  I wasn’t going to read the books unless the new post-ROTJ canon really grabbed me.  I’d thought the original Expanded Universe/Legends canon did well enough.  But even that wasn’t the real killer.

The sequel trilogy had to build on the original trilogy, at the very least.  Instead, The Force Awakens proved to be – largely – a beat-for-beat reprise of A New Hope.  There is a Rebel Alliance – the Resistance – fighting the remnants of the Empire (aka the First Order.)  The First Order has an even bigger Death Star, plus they’re searching for a droid with a map to Luke Skywalker’s hiding place.  (And why did someone who wanted to hide go to the trouble of drawing a map?)  The overall story arc is very much like A New Hope, with Han playing the role of Ben Kenobi (his death was easy to predict). 

The characters had potential, but that was largely wasted.  Poe didn’t get enough screen time to be a really developed character.  Finn, the best of the new characters, had too many cowardly lion moments for my tastes.  He comes across as weak, where Han looked cocky in the original trilogy.  And Rey is very much a Mary Sue.  She’s too good, given where she started from (Mara Jade, by contrast, had her awesomeness very clearly explained from the start).  The movie denies us the chance to watch her grow, as we watched Luke grow in the original trilogy.  I sometimes feel that the writer gave all the pratfalls to Finn, who isn’t the type of character who can handle it.  In conclusion, The Force Awakens is good for nostalgia, but bad for character development.  It’s tissue-thin and falls apart when you look at it too closely.

Leaving aside Rogue One, perhaps the best of the Disney Wars movies, we move on to The Last Jedi.  Again, it draws heavily from the original trilogy – in this case, unsurprisingly, The Empire Strikes Back.  However, it is unable to justify itself as well as the original.  The plot makes little sense, practically assassinating all three of the main characters as well as both Luke and Leia.  (Kenobi and Yoda hid from an entire empire.  What was Luke hiding from?)

Worse, it lacks the original’s compact storytelling.  Instead of a united plot that diverges and then recombines, there are three separate plots.  The power trio are split up – after having been separated at the end of The Force Awakens – and sent on different missions for various plot reasons. One of them should really have been eliminated, preferably Finn’s.  As much as I like him, and I do, his plot is the least useful.  Finn and Poe should have been kept together, if only because Poe and Finn have a lot more chemistry than Finn and Rose. (Rose herself is completely surplus to requirements, although she’s a better character than her detractors say.)

It’s fairly clear the writer knew little about the military, let alone character development.  Poe is bashed for being wrong, when it’s blatantly obvious he was pretty much right.  (If that dreadnaught hadn’t been destroyed, the Resistance would have been taken out instead.)  This bashing continues as Leia is put out of action, which throws command to Vice Admiral Holdo … who we are told is a great commander, but rapidly shown that she’s nothing of the sort.  Poe clashes with her repeatedly, ending in a mutiny (hell, the only real charge that can be levelled against Poe is that he left the mutiny too late.)  Leia talks everyone down and the plan goes ahead, leading to utter disaster.  Finn, in the meantime, is completely wasted on a side plot that does nothing more than lecture us on war profiteers … a pointless lecture, given that the Resistance couldn’t exist if it wasn’t being supplied by … war profiteers.

Rey, in the meantime, continues to develop far faster than either Luke or his father.  The movie continues the tradition of not letting her show weakness or taking a pratfall, even after she’s yanked into the Dark Lord’s chamber and fights beside Kylo Ren.  She develops at astonishing – indeed, impossible – speed.  This alone might not be a problem, but her development comes at Luke’s expense – remember, Luke was the hero of the original movies – and makes her look like she’s been shrilled, rather than developed naturally.  The temptations she faces are different, but – in a sense – they’re the temptations we’ve already seen in the first two trilogies.  It might have been better, from a story-telling point of view, if Rey and Ben Solo had switched places midway through The Last Jedi.

As a piece of Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi is largely a disaster.  It kills off Luke (and effectively Leia, as well as a handful of others) without building a proper legacy for their successors.  As a movie in its own right, it isn’t any better.  Gross incompetence on one side is countered by gross incompetence on the other side (see the What An Idiot page for details).  Snoke, Hux and Finn suffer negative character development, the former being killed off midway through the movie and the middle turned into a walking joke.  What little development it does is soundly wasted by The Rise of Skywalker.  There were only two good points in The Last Jedi – Ren becoming the Supreme Dark Lord and Rey’s parents being nobodies – and both of them are thrown away. 

It also suffered from a desperate case of trying to be all things to all men.  ‘Shipping’ wasn’t a thing when Star Wars came out.  There wasn’t much, as far as I know, debate about who Leia would wind up marrying.  (And this died, obviously, when Luke and Leia were revealed to be siblings.)  The prequel trilogy had it’s one relationship set in stone from the start.  The Force Awakens, however, birthed a whole universe of ships, from Rey/Finn to Rey/Ben Solo and Poe/Finn.  Pretty much everyone who cared about this was a little disappointed by the outcome.  Worse, perhaps, it gave too much – and also too little – time to minor characters, a mistake neither of the other two trilogies made.  For all their importance to the rebellion, Mon Mothma and Ackbar never steal the show.  Holdo and Rose try to.  It doesn’t work.

This led to an odd problem.  On one hand, Disney tried to be diverse.  On the other hand, it didn’t give its diverse characters a chance to shine in their own right.  (Finn and Poe got undermined, Rey got everything handed to her on a silver platter.)  That undermined the push for diversity, ensuring that Disney would be bashed for both pandering to the SJW demographic and not being diverse enough

I never watched Solo.  But from what I’ve heard about it, the movie suffers from the same weaknesses as the successor trilogy as a whole.  It simply doesn’t live up to the source material (and would probably have worked better following a new character, like Rogue One, or becoming a stand-alone set in a different universe).

And now, we have The Rise of Skywalker.

It didn’t surprise me that they followed the beat of Return of the Jedi.  The return of the Emperor did surprise me, if only because it invalidated everything that happened in both Return and The Last Jedi.  The new Dark Lord gave up his position and submitted himself to the Emperor … why?  The one good thing to come out of The Last Jedi and they threw it away?  (Not to mention the boneheaded reveal that Rey is the Emperor’s granddaughter …)

I could go on about this for hours.  But, really, the successor trilogy had sunk itself.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that there was no one with the authority to sketch out a story arc (either copied from Legends or newly-devised) and stick to it.  There was no real overarching plot – I recognise the signs – and a great deal of hasty modification to the movies that annoyed everyone.  Beyond that, there was a simple failure to recognise that Star Wars is not a romance series, but softcore science-fiction with laser swords that had a vast fanbase … one that would be easily pleased, as long as the producers stuck to the themes that made Star Wars popular in the first place.  Instead, the fans felt insulted and decided to withdraw their support.  For this, they were blasted as racists and sexists. 

The smaller problem is that there were too many new characters and too little development.  Rey, Finn and Poe either take steps backwards in The Last Jedi or progress in leaps and bounds that are not justified within the movie itself.  Ben/Kylo does better as a character in The Last Jedi, but this is undone by The Rise of Skywalker.  Holdo, Rose, Hux and Snoke do relatively little for the plot, yet they get too much exposure to be purely minor characters (and the former two get blasted for being ‘diverse’ without any competence and/or importance.

In short, much like The Last Jedi itself, Disney tried to appeal to everyone and failed.

I’ve seen this happen more than once in books and it rarely ends well.  The problem is that most creative works only have a very limited audience.  Very few of them break into the mainstream.  (Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are the two biggest examples.)  A fantasy book may appeal to the entire world of fantasy readers, but rarely to anyone beyond (and, of course, not every fantasy book manages as much.)  The more you move away from your core focus, the greater the chance of losing readers without actually picking up replacement readers.  The point is not that you cannot have ‘diverse’ characters, or open a field for ‘shipping’ debates, but that you have to remain aware of what you’re actually doing.  Your ‘diverse’ characters have to be given a chance to be more than just diverse.  If you pull this off, it works wonderfully.  Disney did not pull it off.  And, from the way things developed between The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, I don’t think Disney ever understood why.

I think it’s fairly clear the three trilogies fell into a pattern.  The prequels focused on the decline and fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire.  The originals focused on the rebellion against the Empire, ending with the Emperor’s death.  Logically, the successor trilogy should have focused on the rise of the New Republic and the fight against the remnants of the Empire (like I said, The Thrawn Trilogy covered that very well).  However, The Force Awakens and the rest chose to hit the reset switch.  Everything important – Han and Leia getting hitched, their kid going dark, Han and Leia splitting up – happens off-screen, leaving us with complete newcomers.  This worked in the original series because there were no preconceptions.  This (sort of) worked in the prequels, because we knew who Kenobi, Anakin, Yoda and Palpatine would grow into.  It didn’t work in the successor trilogy because there was an established backstory and the vast majority of the fans wanted and expected Luke, Han and Leia to be the stars. 

In fact, if you watch the movies in order, you can see the prequel characters giving birth to the original characters (both metaphorically and literally).  There’s no immediate connection, however, between the original stars and their successors – and when the connection is made, it involves too much shrilling for my tastes.

How would I have done it, I wonder?  Assuming simply filming The Thrawn Trilogy wasn’t an option – I’d need to hire lookalikes for Luke, Han and Leia – I might skip forward fifteen years or so after Return of the Jedi.  Leia would be serving as a New Republic Ambassador, Luke would have his Jedi Academy and Han … I’m not sure about Han.  He could remain in the military, if he wishes, or – if he splits from Leia – remain exploring the fringes of explored space.  The new threat would be a revitalised empire, led by one of the Emperor’s surviving students.  Ben Solo would be one of Luke’s students, tempted to fall to the dark side; Poe would be involved in the first skirmishes, giving him a chance to meet Finn and urge him to deflect from the Empire.  Rey would remain a desert girl, lured into the dark side by the big bad, or another of Luke’s students.  The first movie might end with a battle over the Jedi Academy, the second with the Empire seemingly posed to win; the third with a final desperate strike at the big bad before he could win the war.  By the time the series ended, the old characters would have gone out in style and the new characters would be firmly established.

In the end, Disney Star Wars will go down in history as something akin to the DC Cinematic Universe.  A concept with much great promise, based on a well-known and loved franchise, that was effectively wasted by its owners. 

Planned Scedule

11 Jan

For those interested …

Now – The King’s Man (Zero 7)

Feb – The Artful Apprentice (SIM 19)

Mar – Cast Adrift (Probably)

April – Knife Edge or Bread and Circuses (The Empire’s Corps)

May – Oathkeeper (SIM20)

Snippet – The King's Man (Zero 7)

10 Jan

Comments welcome!

Prologue

If there was one lesson my father had hammered into me, time and time again, it was this.

Never, never, trust an aristo.

It wasn’t that all aristos were bad people.  I’d met some who were good people, who were decent and kind and generous … as long as it didn’t impinge upon their interests in any substantial way.  And I’d met some who seemed to take delight in looking down on the commoners and making them beg, for everything from food and funding – and patronage – to simple survival.  They’d been taught to put their interests of their class ahead of everything else, even simple human decency.  They were just too different.  They could never be trusted completely.

Father had sworn he would never call upon an aristocrat and he’d kept his oath.  He’d worked his way up from the docks through sheer talent, through a gritty willingness to do whatever it took to build up a merchant trader business for himself.  He could have had everything on a platter, if he’d become an aristo’s client.   They would have given him everything he could handle, at the cost of losing his independence.  Once they had him in their clutches, they would never have let him go.  The price was too high.  And Father had proved it could be done without them.  He’d made me swear the same oath when I went to Jude’s.

I’d kept it, as best as I could.  It came with a price.  I could be friendly to anyone and everyone, but I could never truly be one of them.  I wasn’t an aristo myself, of course, and I was unwilling to submit myself to them.  They knew I wasn’t useless, but they also knew I would never be their client.  I studied as hard as I could, determined to make a name for myself that relied on no one else.  I was going to be the greatest sorcerer in the world.  It was why I’d entered the Challenge.

And then everything changed.

I’d chosen not to form a team of my own.  There just weren’t many students, like myself, who didn’t have ties to the aristos.  Even trying to put together a group would have exposed me to humiliation.  I was good too, good enough to think I could do it on my own.  I thought, as I heard the rumours echoing through the school, that I’d have some advantages if I was alone.  I wouldn’t have to fear my allies putting a knife – hopefully metaphorically – in my back.  One never knows with aristos.

The Challenge itself seemed absurdly simple. Capture the Flag, writ large.  I suppose that should have tipped me off.  Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.  I woke up in the middle of a forest, miles from anywhere.  No worries.  I was good at sneaking around.  I’d spent my nights at school sneaking around, stealing grub from the kitchens or feuding with the other students.  I stayed low, keeping my head down as I inched through the forest towards the castle.  I didn’t want to encounter the other teams, not when I couldn’t afford to take a single hit.  If I was frozen, or stunned, or trapped in a useless form … I would lose.  No one was going to liberate me before time ran out.  It would just make life harder for themselves. 

I watched and waited as two other teams reached the castle, only to start snapping spells at each other instead of splitting up or trying to collaborate.  They took each other out, more or less.  There were only a couple of students left free by the time I spelled them both and walked past them into the castle.  The wards felt stronger than I’d expected, strong enough to confuse my senses.  The building’s interior kept shifting.  I was impressed, as well as worried.  I knew it would be very easy to get turned around and pointed in the wrong direction.  I was sneaking down the corridor when I saw someone moving ahead of me.  I hexed him …

… And promptly got hexed in the back.

My body froze, my muscles locking stiff.  I wanted to shout, to roar in fury, but it was already too late.  I’d been tricked and … I’d lost.  Francis Rubén walked past me, sniggering like a depraved loon.  He’d been separated from his team, but … it had worked out for him.  He’d taken me out of the game.  He dropped his trousers and mooned me, then walked onwards into the shadows.  I stood there, helplessly.  There was nothing I could do, but wait for the game to end.

I’d been beaten before.  It happened, no matter how hard I tried.  There’s always someone better or luckier or … simply in a position to take advantage of my mistakes.  I didn’t take losing personally.  If I was beaten according to the rules, I didn’t mind.  It happened.  But Francis … I felt tricked, I felt belittled, I felt humiliated by how he’d rubbed my nose in my defeat.  And it didn’t help that the others snickered at me too as they passed.  I was frozen, but I could hear them.  They pointed and laughed at me, the commoner who’d tried to do the Challenge alone.  Alana was particularly cruel.  She’d never liked me, ever since I’d asked her to walk out with me.  She didn’t pay attention to anyone unless he – or she – could trace their bloodline all the way back to the Thousand Year Empire.

It felt like hours before I was freed.  The Challenge was over.  Akin Rubén – one of the few decent aristos I knew – had won.  Alana had come second, sort of.  Francis was dead.  I never heard the full details, which led me to suspect he’d done something embarrassing.  I would have liked to think that he’d hexed someone else in the back, but I doubted it. Aristos didn’t get thrown out for cheating commoners.  That was how most of their ancestors had risen to power in the first place.

But the whole affair left me unsure what to do with my life.  I was a good magician – I knew that – but what would I do after I graduated?  What could I do?  There were few careers open to me that didn’t involve asking for patronage, pledging myself to an aristo and following my patron’s orders slavishly.  The system had little room for the truly independent.  Father had worked hard, but he’d run up hard against the limits.  He couldn’t grow his business any further without their help and it was the one thing he refused to do.

The weeks and months that followed were frustrating, to say the least.  Everyone knew I’d been humiliated.  They learnt not to snigger so loudly after I claimed Scholar’s Rights and hexed two particularly annoying students until their own mothers couldn’t have recognised them, but I knew they were still laughing.  Of course they were!  I was a safe target.  They wouldn’t get embroiled in a family feud by laughing at me.  Whatever I did to them, it wouldn’t last.  I forced myself to work hard, putting my all into the exams.  And then …

I waited, bored.  I had to do something to liven things up. 

Ironically, my decision to commit a string of pranks was what opened the door to a whole new world …

Chapter One

It was going to be the greatest prank ever.

I smiled at the thought as I carefully picked my way into the Charms classroom.  Jude’s had a tradition of pranksters, students who pushed the limits as far as they would go without crossing the line into outright bullying.  I’d gleefully embraced the tradition over the last few months, devising newer and better spells to make everyone – even the victim – laugh.  But I hadn’t come up with anything truly new.  My pranks were little more than modified or improved versions of older pranks.  They’d be saying I was a copycat.  And that was intolerable.

This time, I told myself, it would be different.  I was really going to do something new.  I was going to upset the aristos, shocking them … my smile grew wider as I slipped into the empty classroom and made my way to the storeroom beyond.  I’d borrow a handful of supplies, turn them into the prank and – afterwards – take whatever punishment came my way.  Magister Hugh Von Rupert wouldn’t be too annoyed, I thought.  The old geezer barely knew what year it was, let alone the names and faces of the students in his class.  He had a first-class mind for magic – I’ll give him that much – but little else.  I honestly didn’t understand why students like Caitlyn Aguirre paid so much attention to him.

The wards on the storeroom parted after a few moments of careful effort.  I nodded to myself as I gingerly opened the doors – I wouldn’t put it past the charms tutors to rig a surprise on the far side for any thieving students – and peered inside.  The small collection of tools, supplies and textbooks seemed to shimmer in welcome.  I stayed where I was, casting a handful of detection spells.  Getting caught after the fact was one thing, but getting caught in the act would make me a laughing stock.  Being laughed at was worse than detention, or writing lines, or even helping the catering staff prepare the food.  If there were any more charms inside the compartment, I might be in some trouble.

But there were none.  I frowned, torn between the urge to get on with it and the sense I should back away now.  The storeroom wouldn’t have been left completely undefended.  I could hardly be the first student who thought of raiding the charms classroom for supplies.  The potions cabinets were heavily defended – most students tried to raid them – but really … the storeroom should have been defended.  Yet … there was nothing.  I narrowed my eyes, then inched inside.  I’d come too far to back out now.  I’d know, even if no one else did.  I would know I’d been a coward, rather than taking what I wanted and withdrawing before lunch was over and the tutors returned.  I reached for the nearest box of tools …

… And sensed, more than heard, someone behind me.

I tensed, bracing myself as I turned slowly.  If Magister Von Rupert had caught me … I might be able to talk my way out of serious – and humiliating – trouble.  Boys will be boys and all that guff.  My heart sank as I saw Magister Grayson, his hands crossed over his chest and a grim expression on his face.  Magister Von Rupert was easy-going, but his partner was vindictive, vicious, vile and a number of other things that also started with V.  No one ragged Magister Von Rupert – much – for fear of Magister Grayson.  I was doomed, unless … I groaned to myself.  Tradition decreed that any student who managed to get past the tutors and escape was allowed to go free, but I knew I wasn’t going to get past him.  Magister Grayson was the toughest tutor in school.  A student who tried to give him the traditional black eye would be lucky if he only spent the next few weeks in the hospital wing.

“Adam Mortimer,” Magister Grayson said.  I tried to look for a hint of mercy in his dark eyes, for an awareness that we were nearing graduation, but saw none.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

A hundred answers ran through my mind, all discarded before they were fully formed.  I couldn’t lie, not to him.  I couldn’t escape either.  There was nothing for it, but to take my punishment like a man.  I wondered, as I forced myself to relax, what it would be.  Tutors weren’t allowed to hitor hex students, unless the students hit or hexed them first, but they had wide latitude for punishment.  I was an upperclassman.  Maybe he’d humiliate me by assigning me lines, as if I were a lowly lowerclassman.  Or maybe he’d tell me to spend the next few days helping the kitchen staff.

“I was borrowing supplies for a prank, sir,” I said.  I didn’t bother to pretend I was sorry, not about anything other than getting caught.  He wouldn’t believe me if I’d tried.  “I … how did you know I was here?”

“That’s none of your business.”  Magister Grayson glowered at me.  I wondered, suddenly, if he’d swapped shifts with his partner.  I’d thought Von Rupert was on duty today.  I would never have dared raid the storeroom if I’d known it was Magister Grayson.  “You’re meant to be graduating, are you not?”

“Yes, sir.”  I felt a flicker of fear.  Could Magister Grayson tamper with my exam results?  I didn’t think so – the exams were administered by independent proctors, sworn to neutrality – but it was impossible to be sure.  Magister Grayson was good.  “I’m due to leave for good in two weeks.”

“How lucky for us,” Magister Grayson said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.  “I suppose giving you a year’s detention is a bit out of the question.”

“Yes, sir.”  I tried not to smirk.  Whatever punishment he gave me, it wouldn’t linger past graduation day.  “I’ll be gone soon.”

“Quite.”  Magister Grayson smiled, coldly.  I felt another frisson of fear.  “Go to the detention hall.  Supervise the detentions until dinnertime.  And if I catch you in here again, you’ll regret it.”

I tried not to wince.  Supervising detentions was boring.  An hour supervising the detention hall was almost as bad as having detention itself.  Worse, perhaps, because the supervisor had to keep an eye on the detainees.  He wasn’t allowed to read or do his own work or do anything.  I’d done a few shifts, an hour at a time, and I’d hated it.  I had never been quite sure who was actually being punished.  The lowerclassmen in detention or the poor upperclassman who was meant to be watching them.

“Yes, sir,” I managed.  There were worse punishments, weren’t there?  “Thank you, sir.”

Magister Grayson pointed at the door.  “Go.”

I walked past him, gritting my teeth as I strolled into the corridor.  There was no point in not doing as I was told.  Magister Grayson would report the punishment to higher authority and if I didn’t attend the classroom … I snorted, rudely.  That would get me in real trouble.  It might not affect my exam results, but it would certainly affect whatever reference Jude’s gave me after I graduated.  Getting caught trying to break into the storeroom was one thing, disobeying orders and welshing out of punishment was quite another.

And Father would not be pleased, I reminded myself.  I didn’t want to go to work for my father, after I graduated, but I might not have a choice.  And … my actions would reflect badly on himEveryone would be saying he raised a coward who couldn’t look himself in the eye.

I dawdled as much as I could as I walked through empty corridors and into the detention hall, trying to convince myself the hall would be empty.  The exams were almost all over, save for a handful of exams that were intended for specific career paths.  I hadn’t taken any of them, if only because I wasn’t sure what my career path was.  Everything I wanted to do would have required pledging myself to someone … I put the thought aside as I peered into the hall and winced.  The Head Girl – Alana Aguirre – was sitting at the desk, looking bored.  A handful of younger students were sitting at desks, doing their work.  They looked too scared to talk out of turn.  I didn’t blame them.

“Adam?”  Alana glanced up at me.  “You have detention?”

I tried not to stare.  Alana was beautiful, with dark skin, darker eyes and hair so perfect I knew she used magic to keep it in line.  I’d found her attractive from the moment I’d started noticing girls as more than oddly-shaped boys.  She looked as though she wouldn’t harm a fly.  But I knew she not only could harm a fly, she was perfectly capable of turning someone into a fly too.  Rumour had it she’d been really terrible to her sister, the Zero.  I believed it.  I’d asked her out and she’d laughed in my face. 

And it doesn’t help that people keep asking if we’re related.  I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the thought.  They really can’t believe my talent came from the commoner ranks.

“Yeah.”  I had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes widen before I explained.  “I’ve been ordered to take over from you.  Lucky you.”

Alana smiled.  It lit up her face.  “What did you do?  Throw a tomato at the Castellan?”

“Something like that,” I said, vaguely.  I wasn’t going to admit what I’d actually been caught doing.  Magister Grayson might not be very specific when he reported me to higher authority.  Alana had access to the punishment books.  If I was lucky, they wouldn’t tell her very much. “The Magister was not best pleased.”

“Hah.”  Alana stood, brushing down her skirt.  I tried not to stare at her shirt as she donned her uniform jacket.  “Akin’s due to take over in an hour or so.  Should I tell him not to bother?”

“I’m here until dinnertime,” I told her.  The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I grew.  “Tell him to do whatever he wants.”

Alana nodded stiffly, then turned and headed to the door.  I resisted the urge to watch her as I took the seat and checked the detention roster, casting my eyes over the list of names.  I knew some of them, but – as an upperclassman – I was obliged to pretend I didn’t.  It was lucky my sister wasn’t in the crowd.  I’d have had to be extra hard on her, just to make it clear I wasn’t favouring her.  I settled back into my seat, raising my eyes to study the detainees.  They made a show of not looking back at me, save one.  Penny Rubén.

I held her eyes until she looked down, her cheeks burning with humiliation.  Penny was a fifth-year student who’d been caught bullying – openly bullying – one of her first-year charges.  Akin, her cousin, had caught her.  He’d surprised and outraged many of his peers by ensuring Penny had the book thrown at her, rather than dealing with it himself or burying the truth to protect the family name.  I wasn’t sure quite what had happened – and not all of the rumours reflected well on Akin – but he’d certainly ensured the problem could not be quietly forgotten.  Penny might spent two more years at school, yet … she’d always be treated as a lowerclassman.  One of her former peers had probably given her lines.  She couldn’t have been more humiliated if she’d been forced to clean cauldrons like a skivvy.

Serves you right, I thought.  Upperclassmen were not supposed to pick on lowerclassmen, certainly not first-years who were meant to be under their supervision.  But Penny was an aristo.  Her father, who’d left his family under mysterious circumstances, had probably raised her to suck up to her superiors while sneering at everyone below her.  It isn’t as if your punishment will follow you when you graduate.

I scowled.  I’d been assured that wasn’t true.  Penny’s reputation would follow her, wherever she went.  But it wasn’t a formal punishment.  She’d probably find a way to parlay her birth into an advantageous match, or convince her family to give her lots of money in exchange for taking herself out of Shallot.  Her family wouldn’t punish her unless she really stepped over the line.  Akin’s sister had been sent into exile for high treason.  Anything less would probably be quietly ignored.

Someone coughed.  I glared at him, then turned my attention back to the list.  A boy who’d been disobedient in Defensive Magic.  I was surprised he’d been sent to the hall instead of being put to work by the tutors.  A pair of girls who’d been given detention for talking too loudly in the library.  Personally, I thought they weren’t being punished enough.  I’d always hated chattering brats when I’d been trying to study.  And seven other students, girls and boys, who’d been ordered to write some variant of ‘I will do as my tutors tell me without talking back.’  I had to smile at one of the notes – a first-year boy who’d charmed a piece of chalk to write lines on the blackboard for him – and made a mental note to suggest my sister kept an eye on him.  Someone with that sort of talent might be worth watching.

He’s probably got a patron already, I thought, sourly.  Aristo students were expected to start recruiting clients young.  It just wasn’t fair.  I could have had anything I wanted, as long as I pledged myself to someone barely older.  If they couldn’t give it to me themselves, their parents certainly could.  And even if he doesn’t, that will change before too long.

I leaned back in my chair, wishing for something – anything – to happen.  The rules were clear.  I wasn’t allowed to read, I wasn’t allowed to write … I wasn’t even allowed to engage my charges in conversation, unless one of them did something I could object to.  I waited, half-praying for Penny to step out of line so I could stomp on her, but she did nothing.  I guessed she knew just how bad things would be for her, over the next two years.  She deserved no less.  It wasn’t justice, but it would have to do.

The door opened.  I glanced up, just in time to see a brown-haired firstie girl inching into the room.  She looked ashamed, as if she was already regretting whatever she’d done.  It was probably her first detention.  I concealed my amusement as she sneaked forward, as if she could avoid being noticed as long as she stayed quiet.  She was already too late to escape notice.  Hell, she was ensuring she was noticed by trying not to be noticed.  I wondered, idly, how long it would take her to learn that there was nothing more conspicuous than someone trying to hide.

Probably a commoner, I decided, as she stopped in front of the desk.  She looked so tense that I was tempted to shout BOOAn aristo would be a little more confident even if she was walking to her doom.

I dismissed the temptation – I wasn’t Penny, damn it – and took the slip she offered me.  It was clear and concise.  The poor girl – her name was Gayle – had been given lines for a poorly-written essay.  I guessed she’d been having problems with her handwriting, rather than whatever she’d actually written.  I’d had problems too, when I’d been a lowerclassman.  Father had made sure I knew how to read and write, but I’d never been a particularly good writer.  My tutors had made hundreds of sarcastic remarks as I’d struggled to learn the ropes.

“Take a seat,” I ordered, as I passed her a pencil and paper.  “Write your lines, then you can go.”

It wasn’t the nicest thing I’d ever done, but the last thing she needed – when she had six more years of schooling to get through – was me going easy on her.  The other students might be pretending to ignore us, but I knew they were listening.  They’d talk if I went easy on her, if they thought I let her off … her classmates would hear, eventually, and take it out on her.  It wouldn’t be her fault.  It wouldn’t be as through she’d begged me to let her go or something along those lines.  But they’d take it out on her anyway.

I watched her sit down, then forced myself to think of something – anything – else.  I had only two weeks before I needed to start job-hunting in earnest.  I knew my father.  He’d put me to work in the shop, or kick me out if I refused to work.  And the longer I took to get a proper job, the harder it would be.  I glowered at my hands, feeling magic prickling just under my dark skin.  It just wasn’t fair.

Life isn’t fair, I reminded myself.  All you can do is play the cards you’re given and hope for the best.

The door opened, again.

I blinked in surprise as Akin stepped into the room.  Alana should have told him he wasn’t needed … right?  I didn’t think she’d take the risk of letting the Head Boy embarrass himself not when their families were in alliance.  Her parents would be furious if she caused a rift between the two families.  And her sister, perhaps the most important aristo amongst her generation, would be angry too.  She and Akin were betrothed.  They seemed to get on better than most betrothed couples.

“Akin,” I said.  “I’m stuck here until …”

Akin cut me off.  “The Castellan sent me to take your place,” he said.  “You’ve been summoned to his office.”

I blinked.  “Why …?”

“I have no idea.”  Akin smiled, humourlessly.  “But you’d better get there quickly.”

“Will do.”  I stood, wondering if I should be relieved or worried.  “Have fun.”