General Writing Update

13 Mar

I keep being asked about this <grin>

The Zero Blessing

Book 1 will be uploaded to kindle once I have a cover, with paperback and audio following shortly. Books 2 and 3 only exist as rough notes.

A Learning Experience

The Long Road Home will be up for sale on the 20th or thereabouts. Books 5+6 exist as rough notes. Sadly, they probably won’t be stand-alone.

Schooled in Magic

Book 12 has been started today. (Sample.) Books 13 and 14 have been plotted; Books 15, 16 and 17 exist as rough notes.

The Unwritten Words (Bookworm Sequel)

Book 1 has been plotted. I plan to write it in June.

The Empire’s Corps

Book 14 (Wolf’s Bane) has been plotted. I plan to write it in April.

Ark Royal

The Longest Night (Battle of Earth) has been plotted. The Cruel Stars has been outlined. The Invincible trilogy (post-Vanguard universe) exists as a set of rough notes.

Angel In The Whirlwind

Cursed Command (aka Unlucky) is now out for purchase.

Desperate Fire (AKA Hammer of God) will be out in May.

Becalmed, a spin-off, will be written around the same time, followed by the second Kat Falcone arc.

Snippet–Fists of Justice (Schooled In Magic 12)

13 Mar

I’ll do a DVD commentary if anyone’s interested …

Prologue

As soon as she was sure her mother was asleep, Alba pulled her wand out of her sleeve and tapped it against the anchorstone embedded within her bedroom window. There was a flicker of magic – strong enough for her to feel, but too weak to trigger the house’s wards – and the protections unlocked. Opening the window, Alba clambered out and scrambled down the uneven wall until her feet touched the ground.

She glanced up and down the alleyway, then waved her wand again. The window slid closed, stopping a second before the lock could snap shut. Alba allowed herself a moment of relief as she carefully recharged the wand, channelling magic and spells into the wood. She thought she’d worked out the spells properly, but accidentally locking herself out of the house would be embarrassing. Her mother would be furious if she caught her daughter outside after nightfall. Alba would be lucky if she wasn’t grounded for the next thousand years.

A shape appeared at the far end of the alley. “Alba?”

“Quiet,” Alba hissed, as she slipped the wand into her belt. “Mum’s wards might notice you!”

She smiled as her boyfriend came into view. They were very different; she was short, with red hair cropped close to her scalp, while Antony was tall, his pale skin contrasting oddly with his dark hair and darker almond eyes. Like many others from the merchant class, his father had been born in Beneficence, but his mother’s family hailed from somewhere on the other side of the known world. She didn’t hold that against him. Beneficence lived by trade. Family connections to distant lands could only come in handy. Besides, he was one of the few boys brave enough to court the daughter of a sorceress. Most young men didn’t have the nerve.

“We’re going to be late,” he muttered, as he took her hand and hurried her down the alleyway. “How far do the wards stretch?”

“I’m not sure,” Alba confessed, sourly. She touched her wand, feeling a flicker of the old regret. She’d been born with magic, but not enough to justify her parents paying for a proper magical education. The spells her mother had taught her – and the spells she’d sneaked out of her mother’s spellbooks – were all she’d ever had. “I think we’ll be safe once we’re out of the allay.”

“I hope you’re right,” Antony said. He glanced at his watch. “Vesperian always throws the best parties.”

Alba had to smile. “Did your father get the contract?”

“And several hundred notes,” Antony added. “We should be sitting pretty for the next few years, at least until Vesperian’s Track is completed.”

“Good,” Alba said. Antony would be first in line to take over his father’s business. It would give him a secure base to support a wife, if they got married. Alba’s family was wealthy – she could support herself, if necessary – but they’d expect Antony to pay for everything. And they should have no grounds to object. Antony might not be a magician, but he could definitely lift Alba up the social scale. “And how much of the negotiation did you do?”

“Just a little,” Antony said. One of the reasons Alba liked him was that he wasn’t as boastful as some of the other young men she’d known. “I purchased a few dozen notes for myself, though, at very good rates. They should pay off in a couple of years.”

The streets grew more crowded as they made their way towards Starry Light, the wealthiest part of the city. Beneficence never slept, not even late at night. Her heart pounded with excitement. It wasn’t something she saw often, not when her mother was a little overprotective. She smiled as she saw a line of dancers making their way down the street, clapping and cheering as they extolled the praises of someone she’d never heard of for guildmaster. Antony pulled her through the crowds, then stopped. There were so many people that they’d be very late.

“We’d better go this way,” he said, pulling her into another alley. “We don’t want to be too late.”

Alba smiled. There were alleys down in the Lower Depths, her mother had warned her, where anyone foolish enough to enter would never emerge again. She’d never been allowed to visit the area, so she didn’t know if it was true. But here, with the City Guard patrolling regularly, the alleys were clear. Drunks, beggars and muggers knew better than to tangle with the Guard. The alleyway even smelled better than the street near her house.

Her smile grew wider as they came out of the maze and walked towards the mansion. No one really knew how rich Vesperian actually was, but anyone who owned a giant mansion in Beneficence – where space was at a premium – had to be immensely rich. The line of young men and women entering the mansion, some of the women wearing dresses that revealed far too much of their bodies, was just icing on the cake. She recognised a number of men and women who were either wealthy and powerful in their own right or heirs to great wealth and power. A handful surrounded them as they made their way through the gates, her skin crawling as she sensed a powerful ward protecting the mansion. Antony waved them away, promising to speak to them later.

“Thank you,” Alba whispered. Antony had promised her a night of dancing, not a night of secret negotiations. Besides, how secret could anything be at this party? “Shall we dance?”

“Of course,” Antony whispered back. “They’ll be waiting for me after I see you home.”

He led her into the mansion and onto the dance floor. Alba shook her head in disbelief at the sheer luxury, ranging from the colossal tables groaning under the weight of food to the golden statues and expensive paintings that dominated the room. A couple were explicit enough to make her blush. She had no idea how the artist had managed to convince anyone to do that long enough for him to make the preliminary sketches. Antony paid no attention to them, much to her relief. Hopefully, they wouldn’t give him any ideas. She liked him more than she cared to admit, but she wasn’t ready to do more than kissing yet. Besides, there were other complications.

“We’re just here to dance,” Antony said, when a pair of middle-aged men tried to call him over. Alba was relieved. They’d been on the dance floor for nearly an hour, but neither of them wanted to leave just yet. “I’ll be back in the office tomorrow.”

Alba smiled at him. “What do they want to talk about?”

“Business,” Antony said. He beamed. “We’re hot at the moment, you know.”

“I know,” Alba said.

She leaned in and kissed him, then jerked her head towards the door. Many of the younger boys and girls were heading home, clearly hoping to get back before curfew. She wasn’t the only one who’d sneaked out, she was sure. Being caught at the dance, particularly as the night wore on, would ruin a young person’s social life. Everyone knew what happened in the wee small hours of the morning, even if no one could put it into words.

Antony grinned back at her as he led her back through the doors and out onto the streets. The air felt colder now, a faint … edge … flickering at the edge of her awareness, but she barely noticed. Antony led her back into the maze of alleyways, picking his way through the darkened streets with easy assurance. And yet … Alba found herself glancing from side to side as she realised what was missing. The allay was completely empty.

“We’re nearly home,” Antony said. He turned to face her. “Did you have a good time?”

“I did,” Alba said. Her heart was suddenly pounding in her chest. “I …”

She leaned forward, lifting her head so he could kiss her. His lips felt soft and warm against hers, just for a second. And then he tensed …

“I don’t want to end up like Jaya,” he said. “Is it safe …?”

Alba felt another flicker of irritation. Jaya and Ridley, Alba’s elder sister, had dated, until he’d put his hand under her shirt and discovered, the hard way, that their mother had layered protective spells on her daughters. Alba had been too young to be interested in men at the time, but she still recalled the shouting match. Ridley hadn’t even known she’d been protected until it was too late. Jaya had left the city afterwards and never been seen again.

“It should be,” she said. She lifted her lips for another kiss. “As long as we don’t go too far.”

He kissed her again. The world seemed to darken, just enough for Alba to notice. An electric shock ran through the air. For a horrified moment, she thought she was wrong, that Antony’s kisses had triggered a protective hex. And then her boyfriend looked up, his eyes looking past her. His mouth dropped open. They were no longer alone.

Alba turned, one hand snatching her wand from her belt. She might not be a powerful magician, but she could make any unwary footpads regret they ever saw her. And then she froze as she saw the … entity … standing behind them. For a long moment, her eyes seemed to blur as her mind struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. The entity was no taller than Antony, yet he seemed to be infinitively tall; he was human, but somehow far more real than any mere human. His face and beard seemed to be carved from granite. His dark eyes were deep pools of shadow. She couldn’t even look at him.

“Justice,” Antony breathed.

Alba started. It was a trick. It had to be a trick. Some sorcerer’s idea of a joke, perhaps. Or maybe her mother had decided to scare them both … she lifted her wand, casting a cancellation charm. The entity didn’t vanish. Instead, it’s presence seemed to grow stronger and stronger until it overpowered her. It was so big. She heard her wand clatter to the ground. A moment later, she fell to her knees. She couldn’t help herself. Her body felt utterly drained of energy.

The entity strode forward, its footsteps shaking the cobbles below her knees. It was all Alba could do to keep watching it as it came to a halt in front of Antony. Her boyfriend had fallen to his knees too. She could see him trembling as the entity stared down at him. Her mouth was dry, with fear and … and something she didn’t care to identify. It couldn’t be a real god, could it?

“Antony, Son of Emil,” the entity said. It spoke in a quiet voice that boomed in Alba’s ears, each word precisely enunciated. “You and yours have led this city to ruin.”

“Mercy,” Antony gasped.

“There is no mercy,” the entity said. There was a power in its voice, a sheer conviction that every word it spoke was unquestionable truth. “There is only Justice.”

Antony’s body blazed with light. Alba screamed, feeling as if daggers were being driven into her very soul. She squeezed her eyes closed, desperately trying to block out the pain. And then the light faded. She fell backwards, bumping her shoulder on the cobblestones. The pain made her jerk her eyes open …

… She was alone.

Her fingers touched her wand. The tingle, the sensation she felt whenever she touched a charged wand, was gone. She couldn’t muster the energy to prepare a spell, let alone power it. The darkness seemed stronger, somehow, as if the moon and stars had been blotted from the skies. And yet …

She stumbled to her feet. Antony was still kneeling on the ground, utterly unmoving. She reached for his arm and touched cold stone. He’d been turned to stone … no, if he’d been petrified, she would have felt a tingle … wouldn’t she?

The moon came out again, shining into the alleyway. And she screamed, again, as she caught a glimpse of his face …

It was twisted in horrific agony.

Chapter One

The air … smelled.

Emily was dimly aware, at the back of her mind, that someone was knocking on a wooden door. And yet, it didn’t seem important. She wasn’t even entirely sure where she was. The ground was shifting beneath her, sending up alarm bells she couldn’t quite hear. And yet …

“Emily,” a voice called. A male voice. “Wake up!”

Emily jerked awake. She was on a ship, she recalled; a merchant ship that did double duty as a warship, when the seafaring states went to war. And she was heading to Beneficence. And Casper was dead …

“I’m awake,” she managed. She opened her eyes. Her stomach muttered rebelliously. “I’ll be along in a moment.”

“Good,” General Pollack said. His voice was so close that she looked around in alarm before realising that he was on the far side of a wooden door. “Come meet me on the quarterdeck when you’re ready.”

Emily nodded to herself as she heard the sound of his footsteps striding away. She was, as far as she knew, the only woman on the ship, although General Pollack had told her stories of young girls who’d run away to sea and somehow managed to conceal their gender for decades. Emily wasn’t sure how that was possible – she’d seen the crew quarters and their complete lack of privacy – but she was prepared to take his word for it. She might have tried to run away too, if she’d thought it possible. And, perhaps, if she’d had any stomach for seafaring. She’d been on the boat for five days and she still felt seasick.

She sat upright, glancing around the cabin. It belonged to the captain, who’d flatly refused to let anyone else give up their sleeping space to the young sorceress, noblewoman and war heroine. Emily would have been more impressed if she hadn’t known that the captain had moved into his first mate’s cabin, who in turn had displaced the officer directly below him … she shook her head, telling herself that she should be grateful. The cabin was cramped and smelly, despite the gilded wooden bulkheads, but it was private. She’d seen the way some of the sailors – and officers – looked at her when they thought she wasn’t looking.

Swinging her legs over the side, she stood, careful not to bang her head on the low ceiling as she slipped on her shoes. Sleeping in her clothes made her feel icky, but there was no way she’d wear a nightgown, let alone sleep naked, on the ship. She took some water from her canteen and splashed it on her face, then examined her face in the mirror. Her hair was a mess – she hadn’t had a chance to take a hair-growth potion back in Farrakhan – and her face was pale, dark circles clearly visible around her eyes. She looked distressingly like a raccoon – or, perhaps, someone who’d come off worst in a fight. Her shirt and trousers looked unclean, as if they hadn’t been washed for a few days. The only real consolation was that most of the crew looked worse.

We should have teleported, she thought, as she felt the deck shifting beneath her feet. Her legs felt wobbly, just for a second. I could have teleported us both back to Cockatrice and we could have crossed the bridge there.

She took a sip of seasickness potion – it wasn’t strong enough to provide more than minimal relief, but anything stronger would have impaired her mind – and headed for the door. General Pollack had insisted on taking his son’s remains home via ship, despite her objections. In hindsight, Emily told herself, she should have asked to remain at Farrakhan with Sergeant Miles or even asked the sergeant to prolong her apprenticeship for an additional couple of weeks. But she hadn’t.

The smell – too many humans in too close proximity, mingled with salt water – grew stronger as she pushed her way out into the corridor. She could hear chatter coming from far too close to her, but she couldn’t see anyone. A metal grate, set within the wooden deck, led down to the lower decks. The sailors would be down there, she knew; the night crew would be trying to rest, even as the day crew went to work. She wondered, absently, why some of the crew were talking. They’d be keeping their comrades awake.

Or maybe not, she thought, as she walked into the next compartment. They’ll be so tired they can sleep through anything.

She drew in her breath as she saw the coffin, mounted neatly on a wooden block. It was a simple design, with a name and a handful of runes carved into the wood. And yet, it was empty. Casper’s body had been blasted into dust, the remains drifting down towards the nexus point and vanishing. No spell she knew could salvage anything that was indisputably Casper. But General Pollack had insisted on taking a coffin home anyway. Emily didn’t think that was healthy, yet she knew everyone grieved in their own way.

You’d think differently if you lost a child, she told herself. You’d want to believe that some of him had been laid to rest too.

A small book lay on top of the coffin, protected by a simple wardspell. Emily felt a twinge of pain, remembering just how many magicians and officers had written a brief farewell into its pages. Casper had deserved better, even if he had died a hero. Far too many others had already been forgotten, after dying in defence of the Allied Lands. No one, as far as she knew, had any idea how many soldiers and civilians had actually died. Most of them would only be mourned by their families.

She shook her head, then turned and headed for the outer door. A gust of cold air struck her as she pushed it open and stepped out onto the deck. Willow was rolling, gently, as she made her way along the green coastland, her deck shivering as she ploughed her way through the uneven waves. Emily felt her stomach twist and swallowed hard, promising that she wouldn’t throw up in front of the sailors. Her legs felt unsteady as she forced herself to walk towards the quarterdeck. Every movement felt, to her, as though the ship was on the verge of capsizing. She told herself, firmly, that her mind was playing tricks on her, but it didn’t feel very convincing. She’d never managed to get her sea legs.

Willow felt small to her, even though she’d been in more confined spaces. Emily couldn’t help thinking that she was tiny, compared to a ship on Earth. Ninety crew and ten guests, all crammed into her hull … she turned as she heard a shout, just in time to see a young boy scrambling up the mainmast and into the crow’s nest. The boy couldn’t be anything like old enough to shave, let alone go to Whitehall. It still surprised her, even now, to see children performing adult tasks. The four sailors who scrambled up to the forward sails dwarfed the cabin boy.

“My Lady,” Captain Rackham said. “Thank you for sharing my table.”

Emily – reluctantly – held out her hand for him to kiss, then withdrew it as soon as she decently could. Captain Rackham looked like a pirate, right down to the black waistcoat and the cutlass on his belt. He probably was a pirate from time to time, she knew; Willow was fast enough to catch and overwhelm anything smaller than a full-fledged warship, if there were no witnesses. No one would ask too many questions either. The Empire had worked hard to keep the seas clear of pirates, but it had been a long time since anyone had been in a position to patrol the waves.

“Please, be seated,” Captain Rackham added. “My table is your table.”

“Thank you,” Emily said.

She sat next to General Pollack, silently welcoming the older man’s presence as she nibbled a piece of hardtack and salt beef. A midshipman – probably under contract to the captain – passed Emily a glass of lime juice, his eyes flickering over her face as if he were trying to memorise every detail. Emily braced herself, then drank the glass at one swallow. It was so sour that she hadn’t been surprised when the captain had told her that some of the sailors refused to drink it, even though it was the only thing protecting them from scurvy. He’d made it clear that he expected everyone on his ship to drink their juice, even if they weren’t part of his crew. It kept them safe.

The other passengers made small talk, making no effort to include her. Emily was silently grateful, even though she knew they probably considered it standoffishness. Her stomach left her in no state for idle chatter. She listened, saying nothing, as the passengers chatted about the war, bouncing question after question off General Pollack. Thankfully, none of them knew who she was. They’d be much more insistent on trying to open lines of communication if they’d known the truth. She might be in exile – technically – but she was still Baroness Cockatrice. Her word was gold.

King Randor probably feels otherwise, she thought, ruefully.

General Pollack elbowed her, gently. “Eat more,” he warned. “We’ll be heading into land soon.”

Emily made a face as the midshipman placed a small bowl of stew in front of her, but tried to eat it anyway. It tasted faintly unpleasant, as if the meat had been cooked in vinegar. And yet, she knew she was eating better than any of the sailors. They were lucky if they got hardtack and salted fish. She’d seen a number of crewmen fishing during the voyage, trying to catch something to supplement their rations. Apparently, anyone who caught a fish was allowed to keep half of it for himself.

She glanced from face to face, reminding herself – again – that the Nameless World was strikingly diverse. Four merchants, one of them accompanied by his eldest son; three noblemen, who could presumably have used a portal and a lone man who said nothing, his eyes flickering everywhere. The merchants were chatting loudly about steam engines and what they’d do to shipping, once the first steamboats set out on the open sea. Emily couldn’t help noticing that the captain seemed vaguely affronted by the suggestion. Willow wouldn’t be able to compete if – when – the steamboats lived up to their promise.

As long as they have wood or coal to burn, she reminded herself. All this ship needs is a strong wind.

“Come,” General Pollack said. Emily looked down at her bowl and discovered, to her surprise, that she’d finished it. “We’re just rounding the headland now.”

Emily followed him, all too aware of eyes watching her as they climbed down the ladder and headed to the prow. The sailors might enjoy looking at a young woman, but the passengers were more interested in marriage alliances. General Pollack had had to explain that his charge was already engaged, much to Captain Rackham’s amusement. He was the only one who knew the truth. Emily would have found it amusing if it hadn’t been so annoying. Had they really expected that General Pollack would give them her hand in marriage?

They think you’re his niece, she reminded herself. And your uncle would have considerable power over your marriage.

She pushed the thought aside as she joined General Pollack at the prow. A young lad was sitting at the very front of the ship, mounted on the bowsprit above the wooden mermaid figurehead. Emily couldn’t help thinking that he looked awfully unbalanced as he carried out his duties, but the cabin boy seemed to take it in his stride. He practically had the sea in his blood. Chances were, Emily recalled, that he was a sailor’s son, born and raised by the docks. Going to sea would have seemed natural.

“The captain is altering course,” General Pollack commented. He pointed a finger towards the shoreline. “What do you make of that?”

Emily frowned, holding up her hand to block out the sunlight as she peered into the haze. A faint smudge of utter darkness could be seen … a black cloud, hanging in the air over a distant bay. It was raining … wasn’t it? Underneath, there were jagged rocks and the remains of a building. A castle, perhaps, or a lighthouse. It stood on its own, completely isolated. There were no other signs of habitation. And yet, the cloud seemed to pulse, as if it had a malignant mind of its own …

A hand fell on her shoulder. She jumped.

“Careful,” General Pollack said. “People have been known to be … to be touched, even at this distance.”

Emily gave him a sharp look. “What is it?”

“It used to be called Roderick’s Bay,” General Pollack said. “Now, everyone calls it Bad Luck Bay.”

He lifted his hand, making an odd gesture towards the cloud. “Roderick was a sorcerer, perhaps one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world,” he added. “He was the lord and master of a small community on the edge of the Barony of Swanhaven. Thirty or so years ago, he vanished into his tower and started work on a new spell. A year after that, the tower collapsed into rubble and that thing” – he nodded at the cloud – “appeared over the remains. Since then, anyone foolish enough to go too close has suffered terrible bad luck. The community he ruled broke up shortly afterwards, most of its inhabitants heading south into Swanhaven. It was quite a scandal at the time.”

Emily frowned. “What was he doing?”

“No one knows,” General Pollack said. “But no one will risk going into the bay. Ships have been known to run aground on rocks that weren’t there before the … well, whatever he did.”

“And no one saw anything of him,” Emily guessed.

“No one,” General Pollack agreed.

The mist hanging over the coastline grew thicker as Willow advanced steadily westwards, the captain and first mate barking incomprehensible orders that rang in Emily’s ears. Seagulls appeared out of nowhere, cawing to one another as they landed on the sails. The sailors cheered as the first bird touched down, then returned to their work. It was proof, Emily supposed, that they were nearly home, even though they’d been close to land for most of the voyage. No one in their right mind would want to set sail on the Great Sea, let alone the Roaring Depths. Very few ships that headed away from the mainland were ever seen again.

But there is a third continent, Emily recalled. She’d seen the map, carved into the stone deep below Whitehall. What’s waiting for us there?

She smiled, despite herself, as she saw the pod of dolphins jumping through the waves, showing themselves briefly before disappearing back under the water. They didn’t show any fear of the boat, even though fishermen sometimes hunting dolphins. Perhaps they were trained … or, perhaps, they realised the large boat wasn’t a fishing ship, let alone a giant whaler. The sailors had told dozens of stories about men who’d set off to hunt the whales, only to discover that the whales could fight back. Without harpoon guns, hunting whales was a dangerous endeavour.

And that might change, she thought. What happens when someone invents a harpoon gun?

“Watch,” General Pollack said. The mist was growing stronger, gusts of wind blowing water into her face. “You’ll never forget this.”

Emily took hold of the rail and held on, tightly, as Willow started to roll alarmingly. She saw – she thought she saw – glimpses of rocks, just below the surface, visible for bare seconds before vanishing under the waves. They weren’t about to run aground, were they? She hoped – prayed – that the captain knew what he was doing. If worse came to worst, she told herself firmly, she could teleport off sinking ship …

… If, of course, she had time to cast the spell.

The mist parted, suddenly. Emily sucked in her breath, honestly awed, as Beneficence came into view. She’d seen the city before, from the shore, but this was different. Beneficence was perched on a towering rock, a strange mixture of buildings mounted on buildings that seemed to reach up towards the sky. Hundreds of people were clearly visible, climbing up and down ladders that went all the way down to the waterline, where they met tiny boats tied up by the cliff face. The sight took her breath away.

Willow rounded the edge of the rock, then seemed to spin in place before lunging into a giant bay. The Caldron was immense, crammed with ships of all shapes and sizes; behind them, Emily could see ladders and steps that led up to the city above. It felt almost claustrophobic to her, as if it was both large and terrifyingly small; the water heaved and boiled, threatening to push the ship in all directions. The tiny beach on one edge of the Caldron seemed almost an afterthought. There were so many children playing in the sand that there just didn’t seem to be enough room. Their older siblings were scrambling over the rocks, scooping up crabs and dropping them into buckets. They’d make good eating, if cooked properly.

“We’ll be the first off the ship, once we’re tied up,” General Pollack said. “Your bag will be delivered directly to the house.”

Emily nodded. She hadn’t brought much, beyond a change of clothes. Her staff and some of her other tools had been left with Sergeant Miles, who’d promised to take them back to Whitehall for her. There was nothing dangerous in her rucksack, certainly nothing of use to anyone else.

“Ah,” General Pollack said. He pointed towards the docks. “The welcoming committee.”

Emily smiled, despite herself. Caleb was standing there, wearing a long dark cloak. Beside him …

“Frieda?”

“Lady Barb suggested that your friend be invited too,” General Pollack said. He looked oddly amused. “I trust she will be a suitable chaperone?”

“I think so,” Emily said.

“Very good,” General Pollock said. Willow bumped against the dock, a trio of sailors scrambling down to secure the lines. “Welcome to Beneficence!”

OUT NOW–Cursed Command (Angel In The Whirlwind III)

8 Mar

Captain Kat Falcone owes her life and career to her former right-hand man, William McElney, and she did everything in her power to make sure he was front and center for a promotion. But now that he has it, she fears he’ll have to watch his back. Captain McElney has been assigned to HMS Uncanny—nicknamed Unlucky—a heavy cruiser tainted by the mysterious deaths of two former captains and rumors of mutineers. Nevertheless, as the interstellar war with the Theocracy rages on, the Uncanny will travel in tandem with Kat’s starship, HMS Lightning, to the notoriously lawless Jorlem Sector to forge alliances for the Commonwealth and quash rampant piracy.

As Captain McElney struggles to whip a hostile crew of miscreants into a disciplined fighting force, Kat is saddled with an undermining new executive officer—an untested aristocrat whose bigotry colors his sense of duty. Both captains wage war against ruthless pirates while conspirators aboard the Uncanny plot to seize the ship. When the starships find themselves locked in a death match with an enemy juggernaut, Kat must make a desperate and devastating sacrifice.

Nuttall-CursedCommand-23408-CV-FT-V2

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then download from Amazon (print, ebook and audio) here – UK, US, AUS, CAN.

Marriage Amongst Magicians: Betrothals, Courtships and Engagements

8 Mar

Like our own world, attitudes to sex and marriage vary widely on the Nameless World. What holds true for commoners does not necessarily hold true for aristocrats or magicians. In particular, magicians have (generally) a more progressive attitude to female equality and sexuality in general, a consequence of both female and homosexual magicians possessing power. However, they also have a strong belief in magical bloodlines – in particular, the need to bring fresh blood into the family.

Magicians are not generally concerned about virginity or lack thereof. They do tend to be a little more concerned about children born out of wedlock, as such child sometimes have a claim on family magics or resources. (Void not acknowledging a daughter would make perfect sense to the patriarchs and matriarchs.) A marriage is not so much a way of gaining access to sex as a way of signalling a commitment to raise a family.

The approval of the families (at least of the patriarchs and matriarchs) is generally considered important. A match between two magicians of little significance is likely to go unnoticed, but a match between important magicians can cause problems. The families might already be closely related, or they might have a long-term feud, or one family might be hoping the other will prop it up. Melissa’s marriage would have put a great deal of (eventual) power into her husband’s hands, hence Fulvia’s attempt to dictate who she married. Magicians who elope may be cut off and formally disowned.

There are few limits on who magicians can marry. First cousin marriages are forbidden and second cousin marriages are frowned upon. Parents (and Family Heads) are expected to have a hand in arranging the first marriage, although afterwards their children are considered free entities. To some extent, there is some stigma attached to magicians who choose not to have biological children – a homosexual couple would be expected to find a lesbian couple and make private arrangements or a host mother.

An Engagement is agreed upon by two young or middle-aged magicians who have fallen in love and wish to build a life together. Both magicians will seek the approval of the other’s family – if approval is refused, the magicians can elope and get married anyway … at the risk of being cut off from their family. (This isn’t that much of a threat – a trained magician can make money anywhere.) The formal ceremony is simple, after which they’re married.

A Betrothal is an arranged match between two magicians, planned by the patriarchs and matriarchs. Although these can be planned at any age, they are rarely completely serious (they’re really minor bargaining chips) until the magicians reach marriageable age. At that point, the marriage is usually arranged as soon as possible … assuming both magicians agree to the match. Trying to force a magician into a match can be dangerous, but the patriarchs and matriarchs are quite willing to use all kinds of pressure to convince their children and grandchildren to agree. And someone who doesn’t agree may be disowned, which is – at least in part – a tacit admission that the family as a whole isn’t to blame. (That’s why Markus was kicked out of his family.)

Void received quite a number of requests for Emily’s hand, which he ignored.

In some ways, a Courtship is a cross between an Engagement and a Betrothal.

Like an Engagement, it is started by one of the partners; like a Betrothal, it involves the families right from the start. (Part of the reason it has largely gone out of favour by SIM is that quite a few people regard it as a cumbersome relic.) In many ways, it is an attempt to prove that the active partner (the one who starts it) is sincere in working towards marriage; his parents have already given their approval, he’s willing to open his heart to his partner. And yet, either partner can break it off at will prior to actually exchanging vows.

The current generation of magicians will see a Courtship as either a touching romantic gesture or proof that the active partner is an idiot. There is no guarantee that, upon the first approach being made, that the passive partner will accept it. (Arguably, Caleb muffed up the process … although I don’t think he’s complaining.) If it goes wrong, it can cause bad feelings that linger for generations.

***

Once a match is agreed, magicians generally broker a marriage agreement between the happy couple and their families. (A couple that elopes might not bother, as they are no longer linked to their family.) The agreement generally formalises the terms of the match and settles the couple’s relative position within the family.

If Markus had married Imaiqah, for example, she would always be considered a subordinate member of the Ashfall Family because she has no magical family of her own. There would be secrets that would never be shared with her, even though they would be shared with her children. Imaiqah would be in a very poor position to bargain. If she separated from Markus, she might well lose formal ties to any children. (Markus would presumably fight for her – and, as he was the Heir, would be in a good position to bargain.)

If Melissa had married Gaius, she would be the formal matriarch (assuming the family chose her) but she would have less power over her husband. Gaius has too many other ties to the Ashworths. To add insult to injury, the agreement would have been written by Fulvia and Gaius’s father, not Melissa herself. She wouldn’t be in a very good place to bargain or demand changes.

(Jade and Alassa are actually a mingled set of traditions … which makes any agreement very complicated indeed.)

Emily and Caleb, as of the end of The Sergeant’s Apprentice, are actually in a bit of a mess. Caleb was not the Heir, so his parents let him open the Courtship without (much) concern for the future. If it succeeded, well and good; if it failed, they lost nothing. Caleb wouldn’t be in a position to inherit, so there would be no concerns about Emily’s suitability. Now, Caleb is the Heir and there is a big question mark over just how Casper died. Nasty tongues wonder if Emily gave him a push in the hopes of clearing the way for her lover.

Assuming Emily and Caleb stay together long enough to get married, they’ll draft out an agreement and get it approved by Caleb’s parents. (Void technically has a say too, but Emily didn’t take that too seriously.) If the agreement is not approved, Caleb will have to decide if he wants to be Heir more than Emily’s husband.

The British Monarchy in the Ark Royal Universe

8 Mar

I got asked this a while ago, but forgot about it until now <sorry>.

The British Government of Ark Royal agrees, loudly, with Douglas Adams – the job of the Royal Family, in their view, is not to wield power, but to distract attention away from it.

Ark%20Royal

The King is the Head of State, but not the Head of Government (that’s the Prime Minister’s job.) His role is purely ceremonial. The King opens Parliament every year, where he is expected to make a speech, but the Prime Minister is the one who writes it. The King may be expected to sign laws into effect, but he is not allowed – officially – to register any personal feelings about it. He attends ceremonies, such as knighting … but knighthoods and other awards go to people chosen by the government …

In short, the king’s main role is to look good.

The Royal Family – at least the immediate members – grow up in a gilded cage. On one hand, they are raised in incredibly luxury; on the other hand, they have very little privacy and almost no hope of a normal life. As children, they charm the nation; as teenagers and young adults, they are expected to set a good example … they really don’t have any freedom of choice, even in the small things. (This is true of the modern-day royals too.) Marriage is almost always arranged for them, with – if they are lucky – a small selection of potential partners rather than being deprived of choice completely.

Thanks to the Troubles, the Prince of Wales – the first in line to the throne – is always the oldest male child. His brothers hold the next places, followed by any sisters they happen to have. (Right now, the firstborn child is first in line to the throne.) This is a deadly trap – the Prince of Wales is being trained for a single thankless job, but it is one he can only have when his father dies. (It must have crossed Prince Charles’s mind that he might never be king at all.) Trying to find a role outside waiting to be crowned was hard before the Troubles, but harder still now.

The British public, according to the media, has an insatiable appetite for news about the royals. They do not have the privacy protections enjoyed by the commoners, let alone the genuinely powerful aristocrats. Reporters hound them everywhere outside the palaces, with their every little mistake splashed across the datanets. The princesses, in particular, have a very rough time of it – they get hounded for putting on weight, losing weight, showing too much, showing too little … they can’t win. As in the modern world, this has produced a number of deeply flawed individuals.

In short, it’s like a real-life Truman Show.

Prince Henry was meant to go into the navy, spend some time in a largely meaningless role, gain a honorary rank and a nice uniform … and nothing else. Instead, he rebelled and demanded a place in the starfighter squadrons. (One could argue that part of him was hoping he would be killed in an accident, as this was before the war began.) His handlers were strongly opposed to anything that might put his life at risk, but they found themselves outmanoeuvred when he threatened to leave the Royal Family for good. They reluctantly agreed to let him join the training course – under an assumed name, another of his conditions – in the hopes that he would retire before he actually had to fight.

As it happened, the war did break out. Henry insisted on remaining on active service and was assigned to Ark Royal, at least in part, to give him the best possible chance of survival. (In some ways, his handlers were more annoyed that he wasn’t serving publicly, as this would have let them prove that royalty was sharing the risks.) His success during the war gave him enough clout, with the Tadpoles as well as humanity, to get the position of Ambassador … and a post for him and his family, a very long way from Earth (and the media.) It also gave him enough of a salary to maintain himself without the need for royal funds.

That was, in some ways, the crux of the problem facing Henry (and Prince Charles). If he left the monarchy, supporting himself financially would be difficult. Would he still be on the Civil List? The government would probably be unwilling to pay him for doing nothing. He certainly wouldn’t fit too well into civilian life. Getting a salary for genuine work made a very real difference.

Henry maintains that he is no longer in the line of succession and that his daughters were never born into it. The British Government is keeping its options open. On one hand, there’s no real objection to a queen; on the other, the question of who Henry’s sister marries turns nastier if she’s first in line to the throne. And on the gripping hand, there are racial question marks over Henry’s children. There is something to be said for keeping the problem quiet.

Thankfully, many of the problems facing the pre-Glorious Revolution monarchs are no longer a concern. There are few true monarchies outside Britain – Japan is the only major power with a royal family – and marrying into the royal family doesn’t bring any real power. (It does bring position, but that comes with a high cost.) The eugenics practiced by the aristocracy, where there is a push to marry talented commoners, don’t apply to the royals.

But, on the other hand, it really is nothing more than a gilded cage.

Getting Started In Writing

8 Mar

Because of my work, I get a lot of email and suchlike from people who want to be writers themselves. I got quite a bit of help and support from others when I started, so I try to make a point of writing a reply to every email, once I have the time. Mostly, my advice is the same as the advice I’ve put on the blog. Work hard, listen to critics and keep learning.

Recently, I got an email that struck a chord. The writer was dyslexic, like me. (I’ve been diagnosed as dyslexic, but my wife thinks I may actually be slightly autistic.) He’d had a bad time at school, like me. He’d spent most of his time reading SF/fantasy books, like me. And he was trying to become an author, even though he’d been told he couldn’t. As you can see, we had quite a few things in common.

His specific question was about writing motivation. How do you move from an idea to actually filling a page with text, let alone an entire novel? How do you remain focused on an idea, if you’re at the very beginning of your career, long enough to craft a novel?

It isn’t easy. The basic problem is remaining focused on a single idea, but this actually can be subdivided into smaller problems. For example, how much time do you spend on the background? Too much will waste your time, too little will leave you with possible plot holes. And then, how do you remain focused when there are plenty of other ideas demanding attention?

At base, the question isn’t so much about writing a novel as it is about developing writing skill and discipline.

Writing is a skill, one you learn by doing. The first million words or so you write will probably be utter trash. (My first novel was horrifically bad by the standards of my second novel, let alone my current work.) There are no shortcuts. The only way to progress is to sit down and actually write. It doesn’t really matter what you write so much as actually writing it.

Writing is also a discipline. You need to develop the ability to focus on your work and stick to it, despite distractions. A professional writer (i.e. one who supports himself by writing) cannot afford to treat it as a hobby. It is discipline that makes the difference between a single completed manuscript and a set of background notes, isolated scenes and a dozen different great ideas that never go anywhere.

In writing, there is no boss. On the plus side, no one will fire you if you decide to take an unplanned day off. On the negative side, no one will stand behind you with a (hopefully-metaphorical) whip and make you work. You have to motivate yourself to do it.

If you’re just getting started, here is my advice.

First, try to write something each day. Set yourself a target (say, around 500 words) and stick to it.

(If you look at everything above this line, that’s 504 words.)

Try to keep doing this, even when it gets hard. Think of it as a form of exercise – the pains you get are your body adapting to the new reality. Do scenes from a novel, which can be linked up later, or write short stories. The important thing is to keep going!

Second, when you feel a little more practiced, try to put together a much larger novel. Write out a rough outline, then follow it. (You’ll probably discover that you’ll have better ideas as you fall into the book’s groove.) Don’t worry too much about the details, just try to write the manuscript. Your first book will probably be crappy, like mine, but completing a manuscript is not a small achievement. You can make a note of it and then move on to the next manuscript. Try not to go back to the first manuscript and repeatedly update it – that’s a good way to get bogged down.

By then, hopefully, you should have the discipline to continue. Don’t get distracted. If you have other ideas, make a note of them – I carry a notebook everywhere, just so I can write down ideas – and come back to them after finishing the first manuscript.

Everyone has different ideas of how and where to write. I use a wireless keyboard for my laptop, others write directly onto the laptop; I don’t like listening to music, but others do; I drink tea (I go 3000 words to the pint); others drink coffee, or wine, or don’t drink (or eat) at all. Find what suits you and stick to it.

Once you have a few manuscripts under your belt, you can start sharing notes with other writers and exchanging comments and thoughts. Find a writer’s group, perhaps; make sure it’s one in the same general field as yours. (A romance writers group is not going to help if your plan is to become the next David Weber or Stephen King.) Like I’ve said before, learn to listen to these comments. A good critic is gold. Someone who tells you that your book is awesome, just to spare your feelings, is not actually doing you any favours.

The important thing, however, is not to get discouraged.

Success does not come easy – or soon – unless you’re very lucky. A friend of mine once compared getting published to going through Ranger School. I’ve never been through Ranger School, but I can confirm that getting published is hard. You can do everything right and still lose.

Most of the tales of instant success tend to have a hidden story behind them (for example, the writer actually revised the manuscript repeatedly or wrote a number of others beforehand.) It is very easy to get distracted or discouraged, particularly if you’re just starting. And it’s equally easy to fall into the ‘indie author behaving badly’ trap – overestimating yourself can be just as dangerous as underestimating yourself. It’s terrifyingly easy to acquire a bad reputation that will haunt you for the rest of your life. I’ve known authors destroy themselves through jerk behaviour.

Like I said, don’t get discouraged. And good luck!

European Disunity

7 Mar

A couple of readers asked why I don’t comment on current European affairs and BREXIT. It’s a valid question – right now, I’m waiting to see how things shape up in the next few months before trying to make any predictions. A hard BREXIT is likely to be more painful – and have nastier unintended consequences – than a soft BREXIT. Are politicians in Brussels (and Berlin, Paris, etc) prepared to be rational? Are British politicians any better?

I tend to think of it as a divorce. Some separations are reasonably amiable, where the couple put the good of their children (and themselves) ahead of anything else. Others are nasty, with partners lashing out at their former lovers with all the accuracy of someone who knows just where to land the nastiest barbs. Such relationships leave bad feelings that linger for years, casting a doleful shadow over the children and anyone else forced to choose sides. Which one will Europe choose?

There is a strong incentive for both parties to try to reach an acceptable settlement. The EU can cause problems for Britain – that is indisputable. On the other hand, Britain can cause problems for the EU too. A flat refusal to share banking information alone would cause a capital flight from the EU, as wealthy Europeans look for a place to hide their money; Britain could also meddle in EU affairs, particularly as President Trump grows into his role and other anti-EU parties rise across the continent. While a strong and independent Britain may turn into a role model for Poland, Greece and the other smaller states, a weaker and embittered Britain may have other – dangerously unpredictable – effects.

Best case – the UK/EU economies wobble a little, but remain fairly stable. Middle case – the economies take a dive, but either level out or start to return to pre-BREXIT levels. Worst case – the mutual economies collapse completely.

It’s difficult to say what will happen. Britain leaving the EU will probably lower the EU’s funding for a decade, depending on which set of figures you use. (The alternate reading is that Britain will no longer be a drain on the EU’s finances, but I don’t think anyone could make that argument stand up in court.) If handled properly – with a sensible audit and a careful look at just where the money is going – the EU might actually survive BREXIT and come out ahead. But, if handled badly, the yawning black hole within the EU’s banking sector might well tear the EU apart.

The crux of the problem is two-fold. First, Europeans are not Americans. The beer-swilling Texan redneck and the cappuccino-sipping New York liberal might detest one another with the passion of a million white-hot burning suns, but they would both acknowledge that the other is American too. This is not true of Europe. Frenchmen are not Germans, Germans are not Poles, Poles are not Greeks … etc, etc. Nor, for that matter, are immigrants to Europe automatically considered European. Relatively few immigrants are granted such inclusiveness (a problem made worse by their tendency to cluster.) In short, Europe is still an immensely tribal society … and the tribes feel no particular incentive to assist other tribes.

Second, trust in government and society has declined sharply. On one hand, the EU is isolated from the people – the bureaucrats don’t understand what drives their populations, while the elites push policies that look good instead of being good. Their lack of concern for the civilians – when they’re not showing outright contempt – is easy to see. On the other hand, the EU is simply incapable of governing well. It is very much a ‘one size fits all’ system – and in Europe, one size does not fit all. There is very little loyalty to the EU within Europe, outside those who benefit from its existence.

In a sense, you can take everything said about the RNC and the DNC in 2016 and apply it to the EU. Out of touch? Check. Manipulation of the nomination process to try to produce the desired result? Check. Losing the race to outsiders because the elite nominees are not appealing? Check. Etc, etc.

The EU, in a sense, is rather akin to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. It is composed of a number of states that are more than willing to put their own interests firsts, with leaders who have to account to their (voting) populations rather than the EU as a whole. (The cynic in me suspects that the bureaucrats consider that rather a disadvantage.) The tangled web of political, bureaucratic and financial obligations makes it difficult for a smaller country to assert itself, let alone allow for any sort of independent (and public) oversight. One can argue, quite reasonably, that Greece is both victim and victimiser: on one hand, the Greeks were bullied relentlessly by the EU; on the other, their government got them into an economic black hole by lying to the EU about their economic state, not bothering with any reforms until pushed and spending more money than they could possibly repay.

(The simple fact that the EU didn’t bother to do any due diligence, as I have mentioned before, is yet another reason to discard it into history’s waste bin.)

Right now, the EU is steadily fragmenting.

The optimist in me says that the EU will draw back from its attempt to become a super-state and evolve into a loose association of European nations, that it will change to become more responsive to the will of its populations. But even this sows the seeds of discontent and disintegration. The Germans, for example, will want the Greeks to pay back every Euro they borrowed (an impossible goal) while the Greeks will want debt forgiveness (another impossible goal.) They won’t be the only ones, either. Squaring this particular circle will be impossible.

The pessimist in me says that the EU has failed, that it has lost the trust of its populations completely (and thus needs to be discarded as quickly as possible.) This may not be wholly accurate, but there is a strong element of truth in it. Certain aspects of the bloc – free movement, for example – have caused significant problems, leading inevitable to a ‘baby and the bathwater’ situation, where the ‘good’ is thrown out with the ‘bad.’ The EU governments have not only sacrificed trust, they have also sacrificed credibility. This hampers their ability to come to terms with the ongoing crisis.

I don’t pretend to know how this will end. In many ways, we are gliding towards a situation comparable to 1914; in others, we are entering uncharted territory. Greece may still bail out of the EU (in some ways, they might be better off if they did), along with other states that owe incredible sums of money: Spain and Italy in particular. Economic stagnation will lead to a steady series of job losses, followed by more and more bitterness on the streets, accompanied by tax hikes that will see the rich fleeing in all directions. The prospect of ethnic conflict, too, cannot be understated. They too are tribes.

The avalanche has already started. It may be too late for the pebbles to vote.