Well, another update.

16 Nov

Well, another update.

The good news is that I went to the doctor on Tuesday and he said that the inflamed lymph nodes were retreating, which is a good sign. I’ve been feeling a lot like I did two years ago, before this nightmare actually started. That said, there was a minor panic today when I went for chemotherapy and my white blood counts from Tuesday were found to be low, so they had to take and test more samples before they decided I could go ahead and have the treatment today. I currently feel a little wobbly, but otherwise ok.

I’m also fourteen chapters into The Alchemist’s Apprentice, with hopes of finishing in a couple of weeks. The story seems to be fitting together nicely, more or less as planned; hopefully, it will work well as a completed novel. I’m leaning towards Family Magic next, as it will be something new, but we will see. I have other commitments too.

I’ve been reading lots about the Thirty Years War (for Godpower) and the French Revolution, the latter at least in part for a prospective magic-v-science war idea that keeps nagging at the back of my brain. The irritating thing is that most of it is too close to the Royal Sorceress universe, to the point where I am considering putting it in that universe, or too close to the Schooled in Magic universe. I’d like to mess around with a story along those lines, but – so far – I don’t have a good plot.

What do you think?

Chris

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Review: Hitler: Hubris (1889-1036)

16 Nov

-Ian Kershaw

By any reasonable definition, Adolf Hitler was one of the most evil men ever to walk the planet. One may argue – many do – that men like Stalin and Genghis Khan killed more people and made a longer-lasting impact on human history than Hitler, but it cannot be denied that Hitler changed the course of human history forever. Europe, already battered by the First World War – the ‘war that made Hitler’ was left in ruins by the Second World War, the ‘war that Hitler made.’ Hitler simply does not have the excuses that can be offered – and even accepted – for the men who decided to go to war in 1914. The Second World War would not have happened, certainly not in the form it did, were it not for Hitler.

And yet, who was he? And what made him?

The story of how an unemployed – and possibly unemployable – street artist from a largely unknown family (although nowhere near as poor as Hitler would later claim) rose to become the supreme leader of one of the most advanced and cultured states in Europe is explored in Hubris, the first volume in Ian Kershaw’s two-part biography of the Fuhrer. It is both a study of Hitler himself, perhaps the finest to be written (so far), and also a study of his life and times. Ian Kershaw spares no expense to point out just how far luck – and simply being constantly underestimated – took Hitler as he rose from the ashes of defeat to lead Germany to a far greater defeat. There were times, even at the last moment, when Hitler could have been stopped. He wasn’t.

Ian Kershaw discusses, at some length, the possibility that Hitler’s background included either Jewish roots or incest. There was certainly no question that Hitler’s father was illegitimate. However, Kershaw largely dismisses the concept of both. Hitler was nothing more remarkable than any other young child, born to a reasonably normal (for his time) family. There was little trace of the monster he would become as he grew up, rebelling against his teachers and – eventually – deciding that he would become an artist. He applied for an art scholarship, in Vienna, only to fail the exam twice. How much different would history have been if he’d been accepted?

The young Hitler was a prideful stubborn man, and yet unformed. He dreamed big – he planned to be an architect – and yet he lacked the ability to turn his talent into a career. His political ideals were equally unformed. Indeed, it seems that he was on good terms with a number of Jews! (Hitler’s own account of his conversion to anti-Semitism, Kershaw says, should be regarded with extreme suspicion.) He was unwilling to admit to his family, or even to his closest friend, that he’d failed the exam. Instead, he stayed put until lack of money forced him into the dosshouse. Surprisingly, he seems to have been a local hero to his fellows during that time. They certainly tolerated him more than most people would have done.

And yet, even then, there was something a little off about him. Kershaw describes a man who could only have a friend on his terms, a friend who he could dominate. (Perhaps not in the sense of bossing someone around, but in the sense of someone who would listen and never disagree.) Hitler’s relationships with women were much the same. His sex life was apparently non-existent until the 1920s – the myth that Hitler only had one testicle is apparently nothing more than malicious rumour – and even then, he sought girls he could dominate. His niece may have been one of them. She certainly rebelled against his constant supervision of her life before, finally, killing herself. It may have been the only way she could escape.

The First World War made Hitler. He rushed to join up – a picture exists of him amongst the cheering crowds during the outbreak of war – and he found he loved the army life. His regiment may well have been his first real home. And Hitler made a good impression on many of his fellow soldiers and commanding officers. There is no question that Hitler was personally brave – a dispatch runner had the average life expectancy of four weeks – nor of his loyalty to the regiment itself. It also exposed Hitler to the harsh realities of the trenches, then disillusionment at how the war came to an end. He was desperate to stay in the army, surprisingly enough, because it was the only place he’d ever felt comfortable.

It was shortly after the war that Hitler joined the Nazi Party and discovered, for the first time, his true talent. Hitler could – and did – stir a crowd into a frenzy. This, combined with a certain degree of wolfish cunning, allowed him to make his way to the top – although, oddly enough, it would only be later that he would take the title as well as the power. The Nazis grew rapidly, to the point where they thought they could mount a coup; this failed, but – ironically – it worked out in Hitler’s favour. It made his name known throughout Germany and, perhaps more importantly for the future, allowed him to stay above the fray while the remainder of the leadership fought over the party’s future direction. When he was released, he simply took back the reins and headed on. His enemies believed he was finished.

They might have been right, if the Great Depression hadn’t sent Germany tumbling back into the abyss. Economic collapse led to rioting on the streets, followed by massive political unrest as the Right and Left battled for dominance. The Nazis did well enough in elections that they could not be ignored – and Hitler, as opportunistic as ever, declined to offer his support to any of the more acceptable candidates. Attempts to limit his power, in the event of the Nazis joining a coalition government, were treated with the contempt that they (for once) deserved. He wanted the powers of the office as well as the title. Eventually, Hitler became Germany’s leader. He moved fast to destroy all opposition.

It was a bumpy time for Germany. A normal leader might have been thrown out of office within weeks. Hitler survived, at least partly because his gift for judging the right moment to act was still acute. He allowed a wave of violence against his political enemies, judging that the public would support him; he made alliances with the Catholic Church and others that neatly neutered any opposition individuals might offer. And, after unleashing the first wave of attacks on Jews and Jewish properties, he struck at the SA and eliminated them as an independent force in their own right. And when he sent troops into the Rhineland, without a peep of protest from the Western Allies, his position appeared unchallengeable. No one saw the horror to come …

Hitler is – and will always be – immensely difficult to understand. It is possible, as many speculated, that he had a major inferiority complex for most of his life, leaving him strikingly unsure of himself when faced with his social superiors (or even people who might outshine him at the dinner table). He was never as cultured as most of his opponents, and very few members of Germany’s upper class liked him, but he made up for that by being able to raise the masses and turn them against his chosen targets. Kershaw makes it clear that Hitler was never in complete control – mobs are very hard to control, once raised – and he was permanently on the edge, but that was where Hitler thrived. Indeed, being underestimated helped him. The people who thought they could control Hitler had made a deal with the devil.

Indeed, it wasn’t until his trial that Hitler started to consider himself the leader. Previously, Kershaw insists, Hitler had seen his role as laying the groundwork for Germany’s future leader, a man who would lead Germany back to greatness. Perhaps Hitler would have stepped aside, if a better candidate appeared, but I doubt it. By then, Hitler was well-used to manipulating the party to keep himself in power. (Although, in his worldview, the superior candidate would have no trouble getting and keeping the party on his side.) His inferiority complex had flipped into a massive superiority complex.

He was certainly no intellectual, although he read – and read widely. His political ideas were crude and half-formed, even when he put them down on paper. Kershaw wryly notes that there are no figures for how many people actually read Hitler’s first book; his second book was never actually published. This may have led to a certain contempt for the academic elite, as well as the military, political and other elites; Hitler was certainly never interested in the nuts and bolts of practical administration, to the point where his regime was threatened by corruption and infighting right from the start. When he did intervene, it was often with half-baked ideas that were impractical. Sometimes, he had to back down. He was still feeling his way into supreme power as 1936 came to an end and he knew it.

This sometimes had its absurd side. The Nazis spent ages trying to determine exactly who was a Jew and even they found some of their supporters to be beyond the pale. (One prominent anti-semantic was so awful that even the Nazis banned his newspaper.) It is sickening to realise that Hitler may well have been a moderate, by Nazi standards. Some of his party were far – far – worse. And yet, Hitler had no qualms about a program that would eventually lead straight to mass slaughter and effective genocide. Kershaw makes it clear that Hitler knew what was happening, even when (in the case of early attacks on Jews) it wasn’t something he had authorised personally.

How did this man win supreme power? Luck played a large role, as I noted above. But so did the weakness of democracy and the belief – by many – that they could control him. This was a deadly mistake. Hitler was not, and never was, one of them. He was no aristocratic politician, no genteel democrat unwilling to break the rules: he was a wolf who intended to gain supreme power in support of his mission, as ill-formed as it was. And so many opportunities to stop him were simply missed. A show of strength, even as late as 1936, would have stopped him. Even Hitler himself conceded the point.

Kershaw, writing in 1998, makes no reference to Donald Trump. And yet, these days, it is impossible to write about Hitler without making some reference to Trump. However, it is clear that the two men have very little in common. They also live(d) within very different worlds. Hitler had far more in common with his archenemy, Stalin, or the more modern Saddam than he ever did with Donald Trump. Indeed, the persistent overuse of the ‘X is Hitler’ claim has devalued it; a dangerous trick, in my view, when Hitler was a monster beyond easy compare.

Curiously, Hitler and Trump do have at least one thing in common – something Trump’s enemies have rarely mentioned. Both men rose to prominence, and then power, because vast numbers of people felt that they and their interests were either being ignored (at best) or actively under attack (at worst). Three years of crippling depression had left Germany a far more intolerant society. Hitler would never have been elected if the German government had done a better job of protecting the interests of its people, although it is questionable if they could have done anything like enough; Trump would never have been a serious candidate if there hadn’t been millions of Americans who felt discontented, deprived and ultimately threatened. And both men realised that they could use this sentiment to their advantage.

Indeed, the problem is epidemic across the West.

The problem is, I think, that our current society – and our current crop of politicians – simply aren’t coping very well with social change. Some people have done very well out of it – London did very well out of the EU, for example – but others haven’t done so well. To borrow a line from a remarkably insightful CRACKED article, “the rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and [liberals] smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I’m telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It’s not their imagination.”

Winning the masses, as Hitler pointed out, meant recognising their social concerns; in America, with regular elections, it also meant doing something about them. This was not done. Hilary Clinton lost because she could not command the affection of large swaths of America; Jeb Bush didn’t even get to be Candidate Bush because the GOP wanted a genuine leader, not another elitist in a nice suit. It also meant merely being better than one’s opponents, rather than being the ideal candidate. Hitler managed to present himself as better than his opponents, as did Trump. The bar was not set very high.

I’ll let Kershaw have the last word (Hubris pp.335)ubrisH, before I proceed to read the second volume:

“There are times – they mark the danger point for a political system – when politicians can no longer communicate, when they stop understanding the language of the people they are supposed to be representing. [SNIP] Hitler had the advantage of being undamaged by participation in an unpopular government, and of unwavering radicalism in his hostility to the Republic.”

And that, perhaps, is why Hitler was able to take supreme power and set Germany on a course to Hell.

OUT NOW–Para Bellum (Ark Royal XIII)

10 Nov

On her last mission, HMS Invincible discovered an alien threat beyond human understanding: a sentient virus that has already absorbed a number of intelligent races into its multitude and now intends to do the same to humanity. Defeat means the end of everything, the end of existence as nothing more than mindless host-bodies, the end of humanity and its alien allies alike. The stakes could not be higher.

As a deeply divided humanity struggles to prepare a defence, with enemies inside and outside the human sphere just lurking to strike, Invincible is sent deep into alien space on what should have been a simple reconnaissance mission. But, as Captain Shields and his crew begin their mission, it rapidly becomes clear that a juggernaut is bearing down on Earth …

… And, no matter what they do, they may never make it home again.

Para_Bellum

DOWNLOAD A FREE SAMPLE, THEN PURCHASE THE COMPLETE BOOK HERE: US, UK, CAN, AUS

OUT NOW–The Broken Throne (Schooled in Magic 16)

6 Nov

OUT NOW!

The Kingdom of Zangaria has fallen into civil war. On one side, King Randor and his forces, determined to impose his rule over the entire kingdom; on another, the noblemen who want to crush the king; on a third, Princess Alassa and the Levellers.

Caught in the middle, Emily must steer a course between her loyalty to her friend, her duty to people who put their faith in her and her fears for the future.
But King Randor has unleashed forces even he may be unable to control…

Download a free sample, then purchase from the links on this page.

TheBrokenThrone_med

Updates–More Good Than Bad

3 Nov

Well, it’s been a very interesting week.

Good news first – I managed to write Monday-Friday, allowing me to complete the first draft of Para Bellum. (The planned title for Book 14 of Ark is The Right of the Line.) This was an immense relief to me, although – as the drugs are starting to wear off – next week might be unpleasant and uncomfortable. It will get editing, of course, and then hopefully uploaded soon.

Slightly better news – The Broken Throne should be out on Monday 5th. Enjoy it with your fireworks! <grin>.

I’m planning to start writing The Alchemist’s Apprentice in a week (see the snippet below), with an eye to getting it completed before the end of the month. And then? Well, we’ll see <grin>. It’s nice to feel optimistic again, although things have been veering backwards and forwards over the last week or so. There haven’t been any truly bad side effects this time, but I feel as if I’ve been sunburnt everywhere; this is, apparently, one of the more common side effects. But it isn’t threatening me with starvation, so I can endure.

And I might try and write a few more reviews, as well as a couple of other things during the next few days.

The bad news is that I have a CT scan on Monday too, then a pair of appointments next week before the fourth round of chemo. (They’re probably going to continue, even if the scan says the lymphoma is gone.) Wish me luck.

Chris

Snippet–The Alchemist’s Apprentice (Zero 5)

31 Oct

I had this going through my mind …

Prologue

I was twelve when I was taken into service.

It was no real surprise to me, not really. My stepfather might have accepted me into his home, but he’d never really liked me. There was no way a half-Hangchowese girl could pass for his. My skin was pale enough to pass for a country girl and my name had been passed down from mother to daughter, but my almond eyes – slanted, the crueller kids said – proved that my father had come from overseas. He’d made sure I was fed and educated – the law demanded no less – yet he wasn’t going to waste any of his money on me. I certainly didn’t have enough magical talent to win a scholarship. And so, as soon as I turned twelve, my mother wrapped my dark hair in braids, stood over me as I packed a bag with everything I’d need for a month and took me down to the Hiring Hall.

My mother … I wasn’t sure how my mother felt about me. I wasn’t even clear in the details of what had transpired between her and my father. She seemed to love me, yet … yet she hadn’t kept my stepfather from ordering me into service. Was I a reminder of something she’d prefer to forget? Or was I merely old enough to earn my keep? I’d been cooking and cleaning almost as soon as I’d learnt to walk, like every other girl-child born in South Shallot; I knew the basics of housekeeping better than many a grown woman. My mother had taught me well.

I couldn’t help feeling nervous as we stepped through the massive wooden door and looked around. Normally, a girl who went into domestic service would find a placement through friends and family, but neither was willing to go out on a limb for me. My stepfather certainly wasn’t going to waste his contacts ensuring I had a good placement in a decent home. That was reserved for my younger half-sisters, assuming they didn’t have talent of their own. And yet, the Hiring Hall wasn’t meant for young girls who wanted to go into domestic service. Most of the people who came in search of a job were men from the countryside.

“Be careful, Rebecca,” my mother said. “You must get the right sort of job.”

My mother spoke briskly to the attendants, who gave me a necklace to prove I was in search of a job. They didn’t seem surprised to see me. I couldn’t have been the only youngster who’d passed through their doors. And yet, as my mother walked me around the hall, it looked as though I wasn’t going to get a placement. I was too young for some placements, too weak or inexperienced for others … I’d never realised how limited my experience truly was until I needed a job. The Great Houses, who might have trained me, never hired through the Hiring Hall. They hired through family connections.

And then I saw Master Travis for the very first time.

He looked old to me; his chocolate-coloured face marred with the scars of a hundred potions explosions, his tattered brown robes covered with burn marks and marked with alchemical symbols I didn’t understand until much later. His gait suggested that he was constantly on the verge of falling down. He was, as he walked over to us, more than a little frightening. But he was also the only person who’d approached us.

“I need a shopgirl,” he said, bluntly. His accent was pure Shallot. I later learnt that he was a certain family’s natural-born son. “One who can read and write.”

“I can read and write,” I assured him, quickly. I could too, although not as well as he might have wished. My education hadn’t been that extensive. I certainly hadn’t done well enough to earn the chance to study for the financial or legal guilds. “And I can serve customers too.”

My mother leaned forward and started to haggle. My stepfather – damn the man – had insisted that I find employment in a place that gave me lodgings, even if I had to sleep on the cold stone floor. Master Travis haggled back, although without the intensity I’d expected from someone who’d grown up in Shallot. We’re a trading city. Children learn to bargain before they reach their second decade. By the time she’d finished, darkness was falling over the city and I had a job. Master Travis had even agreed to teach me some basic potions in exchange for a slightly reduced salary. My mother had been insistent. A young woman who could brew would have excellent marriage prospects, as long as she didn’t set her sights too high. It might just be enough to make up for my absent – and unknown – father.

“Come,” Master Travis said, once the contract was signed. I was his now, at least until I turned eighteen. “We have to go.”

The sheer enormity of what I’d done crashed down on me as I bid farewell to my mother and turned to follow him. I might go back to my stepfather’s house for visits – and Master Travis had agreed to give me one day off per week – but I didn’t live there any longer. Master Travis’s shop would be my home for the next six years. My heart was pounding like a drum as we walked out of the hall and down the darkening streets. Master Travis walked with the utter confidence of a man who knew no one would get in his way. I wished I felt so confident. There were parts of the city my mother had told me never to visit in darkness.

It felt as though we walked for hours before we crossed the bridge to Water Shallot and turned down a cobbled street. The city was darker here, bands of sailors and tradesmen hanging around bars or roaming the streets in search of entertainment. Most of the shops were closed, their doors covered with protective runes. I stayed close to my new master as he stopped outside a darkened shop and pressed his hand against the doorknob. It opened a second later, revealing a vast collection of alchemical ingredients. I couldn’t help thinking of a sweetshop. And yet, the air smelled of herbs rather than sugar.

Master Travis lit the lanterns with a single spell. I could see why he needed a shopgirl. The counter was relatively clean – and the jars of herbs were properly sealed – but there was dust and grime everywhere else. Something tickled the back of my throat as I looked around. And yet, I was afraid to cough for fear I might set off a storm of dust.

“You’ll sleep in the garret,” Master Travis said, pointing to a narrow staircase leading up into the darkness. His voice was gruff, but I saw genuine concern on his face. “Do you need something to eat?”

I hesitated – my stepfather might have fed me, yet he’d never bothered to hide that the only reason he was taking care of me was because the law insisted – but then my stomach rumbled loudly. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and that had been hours ago.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Take your bag upstairs,” Master Travis said. “And then come down and we’ll get something to eat.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, again.

He offered me a lantern. I took it and walked slowly up the stairs. The building felt cramped, as if it was an oversized dollhouse rather than a real house. I later discovered that it had been fitted into the gap between two apartment blocks. The garret, at the top of the stairs, was dark and tiny. I was a small girl, for my age, and it still felt as if I’d bang my head on the roof if I stood up too quickly. There was dust everywhere. The bed and chair looked as if they’d been designed for children, not adults. I wasn’t sure where I was meant to put my clothes.

But it was private, I told myself. It was certainly better than the room I’d shared with my half-sisters. We’d practically lived in each other’s clothes.

I put my bag on the bed and walked back downstairs. I’d been sent away from home, and I’d be lucky if I saw my mother more than once or twice a month, but there were advantages. I’d be away from my stepfather, I’d be earning money … I might even be learning a new trade I could use to support myself. Perhaps, just perhaps, going into service wouldn’t be so bad after all.

And it wasn’t.

Chapter One

Potions have a magic all of their own.

Master Travis had told me, time and time again, that most magicians preferred to work with their own magic, rather than unlock the inherent power of everything from Nightmare Grass to Dragon Scales. It was risky, they said, to brew a potion when the slightest misstep might cause an explosion that would blow both the magician and anyone standing too close to the next world. And yet, I could never agree with them. There was just something about watching a potion settle, the magical sheen growing more powerful as the unlocked powers blended together, that I found wonderful. Master Travis had never had to beat me to get me to brew. The fascination of watching a potion come together was more than enough to keep me bent over the cauldron.

I felt his eyes on me as I carefully – very carefully – dropped a tiny cup of beetle eyes into the liquid, bracing myself to shout a warning and duck under the scorched wooden table if I felt a sudden surge in magic. I had been working for nearly an hour, starting with boiling water and adding the remainder of the ingredients one by one; he’d watched me like a hawk, ready to snap a warning if I made a single mistake. I didn’t resent his presence, even though I knew people who would feel that he was denying me the chance to learn on his own. The wards around the apothecary were strong, but nowhere near strong enough to keep an expossion from killing me or starting a fire if something went badly wrong. I would be ungrateful indeed to complain about something meant to keep me safe.

The liquid bubbled, changing colour from yellow to blue. A faint shimmer appeared on top as the magic shifted, before settling down. I let out a sigh of relief – a stable potion would remain stable as long as no one did anything stupid, like hurling a fireball into the brew – and sat back on my chair. My legs felt stiff and sore. I’d been standing so still that they’d started to cramp. I rubbed at them as Master Travis checked the brew, carefully sampling it with a spellcaster of his own design. I didn’t need him to tell me it was perfect. I’d done everything right.

“Well done,” Master Travis said. He gave me one of his rare smiles. I’d never seen him happy, save for when he was brewing. He’d put me in charge of the apothecary almost as soon as I learnt the ropes, a sign he trusted me. “Good enough for the healing arts.”

I felt my cheeks heat. Master Travis sold potions everywhere, but healers were very particular about when and where they bought potions. I’d always had the impression that they had a small army of Potions Masters and Master Brewers tucked away, brewing whatever they needed. But then, there weren’t that many students willing to seek a mastery in brewing. It demanded dedication as well as skill. A student who lacked perfect control over their magic was more likely to blow himself up then graduate. But I had that perfect control. Master Travis would hardly have let me brew some potions – minor ones, to be fair – if he hadn’t been sure I wouldn’t blow up the apothecary. I dreaded to think how much it would cost to rebuild the apothecary.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

I played with my hair as he bottled and sealed the potion, affixing his personal design to the lid of each vial. I didn’t feel any resentment. Master Travis wouldn’t be able to sell the potions unless he vouched for their condition. Even now, even after four years of comprehensive instruction, I wouldn’t be able to sell them myself. Not to the healers, at any rate. There were people who wouldn’t ask so many questions, but they wouldn’t pay so much either. And the City Guard and the Kingsmen had no qualms about harassing unlicensed brewers. They thought that one of them would eventually blow up the city.

It felt strange to have my hair hanging freely, rather than in braids. My stepfather – technically the head of my family, even though he was renting me out to Master Travis – had pushed me into adulthood as soon as he decently could, severing some of the ties that bound us together in a single blow. My half-sisters envied my freedom, or what they saw as my freedom, but I wasn’t so sure. And yet, it had its advantages. I didn’t need a guardian looking over my shoulders, not now. I could sign contracts on my own. I could even undertake a formal apprenticeship without my stepfather’s permission. Paying for it would be tricky – my stepfather had confiscated half my wages for the last four years – but I wasn’t completely destitute. And besides, I had a plan.

I lifted my eyes to look at Master Travis, feeling a surge of love for the old man. He was my father. Not my stepfather, who had washed his hands of me; not my real father, who had sailed away to Hangchow instead of giving me a family. Master Travis had practically treated me as a daughter, not as a servant or a slave. I’d seen the bruises on other girls – and boys – who’d gone into service. And there were rumours of worse things than the occasional beatings. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the details. It was enough to know that I had been spared such horrors …

… And if Master Travis took me as a formal apprentice, my future would be secure.

The plan was simple enough, I thought. I was a legal adult. I could pledge myself to him for the five years it would take to qualify as a Potions Mistress in my own right. I wouldn’t be a qualified magician, not like someone who’d graduated from Jude’s, but with his blessing and certification I would be able to set up my own shop. Or stay with him, if he wanted. The apothecary was big enough for two Potion Masters. I wasn’t going to steal his secret recipes and spread them far and wide. I just wanted a life of my own.

“Master,” I said, once he had finished sealing the potions. “I …”

A chime echoed through the apothecary. I looked down, automatically. Someone had stepped into the apothecary below. Someone had … I swallowed, hard. It was nearly midnight. Who would be walking the streets of Water Shallot at this time? Not anyone with any good intentions, I was sure. This late, the only people who would come visiting were landlords and protection racket thugs … and the latter, at least, knew better than to threaten an alchemist. Master Travis had friends in the community. Very few people wanted to risk his ire.

Master Travis let out an irritated sigh. “Go see who it is,” he ordered. “I’ll finish here.”

“Yes, Master,” I said, standing. “I’ll see to it, then close up for the night.”

I hurried down the darkened stairs, keeping one hand on the rickety banister to ensure I didn’t fall and tumble right down to the bottom. The lanterns below had come on, automatically, when someone entered the shop, but Master Travis had never bothered to illuminate the stairwell. It would have disrupted his misdirection wards. I took a moment to brush my hair back as I reached the bottom, then stepped into the light. A young man was waiting for me, standing behind the counter. He was examining the bottles on the shelves with a curiously bored expression.

I felt my temper begin to fray. “Can I help you?”

He turned, slowly, allowing me to see his outfit. He was quality. He had to be quality. No one else could afford a blend of silks and satins, let alone walk through Water Shallot without fear of attack. The livery on his shoulder marked him as one of the Great Noblemen, from the Great Houses. I knew them all, of course. We all knew the Great Houses, even though they rarely deigned to look upon us. My throat was suddenly dry. If a Bolingbroke decided I’d insulted him, I was in deep trouble. Even Master Travis would be unable to protect me.

I hastily dipped a curtsey, then went down on one knee. I could feel his eyes, far less warm than Master Travis’s, studying me for a long moment before he let out an exaggerated sigh. I resisted the urge to look up, terrified that he would find a reason – another reason – to take offense. Master Travis might be a big man, in Water Shallot, but he couldn’t stand against a nobleman. A word in the right ears might see him banished from Shallot – or dead. And no one would care about a half-caste girl at all.

“You may rise,” the man said.

It took all my strength to stand on wobbly knees. His eyes were watching me – I shivered as I felt them pass over my breasts, silently grateful that I hadn’t worn anything too revealing – as I moved. I looked back, careful not to meet his eyes. He was handsome, with strikingly long blond hair and a smile that seemed to light up the room. His clothes were cut to reveal his muscular arms and legs, suggesting that he wanted to show off his physical strength as much as his magic. I didn’t dare try to probe his magical field, not when that too could be taken as an insult, but I was sure he’d be strong. The Great Houses were always strong in magic. The handful of low-power magicians born to their bloodlines were often quietly sent to the countryside before they could ruin their family’s reputations.

“I am Reginald Bolingbroke,” the young man announced. He sounded as if he expected me to know him. I didn’t, of course. I might have memorised the livery, but I didn’t know Reginald Bolingbroke from the rest of his family. It wasn’t as if I had time to read the society pages. “And you are?”

I hesitated. Up close, he didn’t look that much older than me. I guessed he wasn’t older than nineteen. Wearing his hair long might be a fashion statement, proof that he didn’t have to care about what High Society found acceptable, or it might be a hint that he was more interested in men than women. I didn’t know for sure and I didn’t dare ask. A nobleman would be expected to marry and have children no matter his personal proclivities. There was certainly no way he’d be interested in me.

“Rebecca, My Lord,” I said, feeling his eyes lingering on my face. “I greet you and …”

“A very typical name for a very uncommon beauty,” Reginald mused. “Your father is unknown, is he not?”

“Yes,” I said. Four years of good food had done wonders for my development – I was no longer as scrawny as I’d been as a child – but it had also sharpened my features. There was no mistaking me for anything, save for a fatherless half-caste. “He went back home before I was born.”

“A mistake on his part, no doubt,” Reginald said. “He should have acknowledged you before he left.”

I felt a pang of bitter shame. No one cared about my looks. Reginald might be as pale as the moon, but House Aguirre was as dark as the night and House McDonald had bright red hair and bluff cheeks that spoke of an origin somewhere in Garstang. My looks didn’t matter so much as my lack of any recorded family. I was a bastard, plain and simple. And the only half-caste family I knew that had achieved any kind of success in High Society was House Griffin. Their daughters knew their mother …

And their father is one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, I thought, sardonically. I imagine that helped a little too.

Reginald cleared his throat. “I believe your master is expecting me,” he said. “Perhaps you could call him.”

I blinked. Master Travis wasn’t expecting anyone, as far as I knew. Normally, visitors came in the morning or late afternoon. Reginald was late. Reginald was very late. I wondered, suddenly, if he had a small army of bodyguards camped outside. A powerful magician could defend himself, of course, but it would be better to deter attack rather than cause a mess that would require a great deal of expensive soothing. I didn’t want to think about what might happen if Reginald took offense …

“My Lord,” Master Travis said.

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I’d been so intent on Reginald that I hadn’t heard Master Travis coming down the stairs. I kicked myself, mentally. I was normally more aware of my surroundings than that! But Reginald had distracted and discomforted me.

“Master Travis,” Reginald said. “I see you got my note.”

“I did,” Master Travis said. “Rebecca, close the shutters and then go to bed. If I don’t see you in the morning, open the shop as usual.”

“Yes, Master,” I said, obediently. There was an edge in his voice that told me not to argue, not now. Reginald’s presence didn’t bode well for either of us. “I’ll get right on it.”

Master Travis nodded, then led Reginald up the stairs and into his private chamber. I felt a stab of envy, despite my fears, as the wards went up. There was no way I could eavesdrop. It hurt more than I cared to admit. Master Travis rarely let me into his private chamber – normally, I was only allowed in to dust and then under close supervision – but he’d taken Reginald right inside. I wondered if the young nobleman would appreciate the honour Master Travis had done him. The private chamber was the heart of the building. The wards around it were so strong that I doubted anyone could crack them without a great deal of effort.

Or an Object of Power designed to crack wards, I thought, as I pulled down the shutters to signify that we were very definitely closed. But anyone who could get their hands on one of those wouldn’t want to steal anything from us.

I smiled at the thought, then hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. Master Travis had told me to go to bed, but I wanted to stay awake and see what time Reginald left. And yet … this was serious. Anything that involved a nobleman was serious. I sighed and started to climb the two flights of stairs to my garret, closing the door behind me. Master Travis would tell me what was going on tomorrow, if he was so inclined. Until then, I’d just have to wait and see.

The lantern came on as I entered the tiny chamber, bathing the entire room in an eerie white glow. I smiled as I sat down on the bed and started to undress, remembering just how long it had taken to get the spell right in the first place. I hadn’t grown up with magic, let alone someone willing to teach me how to conjure properly. It was sheer luck, I thought, that Master Travis had been capable of showing me the basics. I wasn’t sure where he’d been taught – some of his spells were different to those in the books I’d purchased from the markets – but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they worked.

I splashed water on my face, then drew the blind down and climbed into bed. It was already far too late to stay up and read, although Master Travis would hardly check on me once I’d closed the door. He’d simply make sarcastic remarks if I woke up with a headache, or failed to get the fire lit and breakfast started before he climbed out of bed himself. I sometimes felt he wouldn’t bother to feed himself if I wasn’t looking after him. It was something that worried me, more than I cared to admit. A full-time apprentice could hardly be a servant as well.

Perhaps we could take another girl into service, I thought. It was an idle flight of fancy – I knew enough about the shop’s finances to know that Master Travis could hardly pay two sets of wages – but I clung to it anyway. Or maybe I could have a longer apprenticeship.

I pulled the blanket over my head and muttered a single Word of Power, powering down the spell in the lantern. The room plunged into darkness, broken only by a faint hint of moonlight coming through the overhead window. Master Travis and I had spent months trying to fix up the roof, weaving spell after spell into the leaky wood, but he’d reluctantly conceded that it was probably beyond fixing. The landlord, damn the man, was dragging his feet on any proper repairs.

It felt like I hadn’t slept at all when I awoke, sunlight streaming through the window. I stood hastily, casting a quick spell to check the time. It was six in the morning, but I could already hear the sounds of the city coming to life. Down below, the milkmen would be rushing bottles of milk from the countryside to the cafes and shops before they opened for business. I knew I’d find two bottles outside the door, waiting for me. I pulled on my robe and hurried downstairs. There was a note on the kitchen table, waiting for me. Master Travis had ordered me to forget his breakfast and go straight to work.

Odd, I thought, as I dug up some bread and jam for myself. What happened last night?

But the scrap of paper offered no answer.

Review – Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years

28 Oct

Review – Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years

-John Guy

It is a curious fact that most biographies of Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I of England, start with her early life and stop with her greatest victory, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth’s later years, John Guy argues, have been left unstudied by historians, even though Elizabeth was born in 1533 and ruled from 1558 to 1603, a longer run than many male monarchs. Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years seeks to invert that perspective by studying the later years of Elizabeth’s rule, following the queen as she grew older and faced challenges that would eventually lead to the execution of one of her successors and the forced expulsion of another. The picture of Elizabeth that emerges from the pages is one that is not altogether flattering – she was not ‘Good Queen Bess’ – but very human. It is also an outline of the problems in being a women ruler in what was, very much, a man’s world.

This was reflected in a series of problems that faced Elizabeth right from the start. She had the advantage of not having her bedchamber invaded by courtiers, an issue that bedevilled James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), but she also couldn’t chair meetings of her privy council, making it harder for her to control the men who – theoretically, at least – were subject to her rule. She could not, at first, lay down the law in the manner of a male ruler – it is hard to imagine Henry VIII tolerating such a situation – and while she learnt to play them off against one another, the problem was always precarious. This was made worse by the simple fact that Elizabeth wasn’t married; there was no prospect of a heir who was both indisputably legitimate, in the sense that he was Elizabeth’s son, which threw the whole question of the succession into doubt. Who was the legitimate heir?

In some ways, Elizabeth was selfish not to attempt to marry and have children. But, at the same time, she had plenty of reason to fear marriage. She knew, from watching her half-sister, that a husband would seek to dominate her – one cleric argued that ‘a woman may rule as a magistrate and yet obey as a wife’ – and entangle her country in foreign wars. (Later, she also had the experience of watching Mary Queen of Scots go through the same trauma.) A husband, be he a foreign prince or an English nobleman, would bring trouble in his wake. He could hardly do otherwise. Elizabeth needed a strong right arm and she didn’t dare find one.

Indeed, Elizabeth faced a unique dilemma. The strongest candidate for the throne, assuming she didn’t have a child of her own, was Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth did not want to do anything that would throw the principle of hereditary succession into doubt. But Mary Queen of Scots was supposed to be a Catholic and many of her courtiers were adamantly opposed to her succession, to the point where they planned to murder Mary if Elizabeth died suddenly and it looked as if she would claim the throne. By the time Mary Queen of Scots fled to England, forcing Elizabeth to make some hard decisions about her future, the problem of Mary’s potential succession had become acute. Elizabeth would forever regret being pushed into ordering Mary’s execution. To a woman of strong religious convictions, it felt as if she had done something terrible. And perhaps she had.

Elizabeth’s greatest weaknesses, however, lay in the military sphere. She could not command troops in battle, unlike her father, and this posed a second set of problems. On one hand, she simply didn’t understand the problems of modern war; on the other, she found it immensely difficult to issue orders to her generals once they were outside her direct control, a problem made worse by the slow communications of the era. Elizabeth regularly changed her orders, to the point where she was promising thousands of troops one moment and slashing their numbers the next. She simply never committed enough troops and resources to the endless war with Spain, although it should be noted that Elizabeth’s resources were very limited. England could not afford an endless land war with Spain. This caused a great deal of frustration for her generals, but – far worse – it strained relationships with the Netherlands and France. Perhaps it was not surprising that the French eventually left the alliance. They had ample reason to know that Elizabeth was not a reliable ally. But Elizabeth had good reason to be extremely careful. Spain made no less than six attempts to land on English shores.

She was also not a reliable commander for her troops. Elizabeth’s troops were paid very poorly – they were also expected to pay for their uniforms and suchlike too – and they were understandably not enthused about going to war. They were even abandoned overseas when they couldn’t be brought home, something that led to mutiny and riots. Elizabeth was luckier than she deserved, in many ways. Again, someone with direct experience of war might have been able to escape these problems. Elizabeth’s comparison of herself to Richard II, who was disposed by his far more capable cousin, was more accurate than she might have guessed. Richard also had far more limited military experience.

As Elizabeth grew older, she faced newer challenges. The most serious, perhaps, was the problems caused by the political contest between the dashing Earl of Essex, who wanted to be her champion and seek military glory, and Cecil, one of her most trusted councillors. Essex was undoubtedly a brave man, but his flashes of genius proved no match for Cecil’s careful plodding. Matters grew worse until Essex was put in command of the army sent to Ireland, a no-win situation for him (and a no-lose situation for Elizabeth, as Essex would either win or fail so badly his influence would be gone forever). His position was steadily undermined by his enemies until he raced back to London, trying to speak to the queen in person. This could not be tolerated. Scenting his own doom, Essex tried to mount a coup, which failed spectacularly. He was executed. Did Elizabeth know that Essex had been steadily pushed into doing something stupid? We simply don’t know.

She also faced a newly-aggressive parliament, which was determined to extract a price for funding Elizabeth’s wars. Elizabeth found this intolerable, but there were limits to what she could do about it. (Part of the problem was that she’d earlier snatched most of the profits from various endeavours, which had the unexpected – but predictable – effect of reducing interest in further investment.) She came up with a face-saving formula that insisted she’d granted concessions of her own free will – and they were quickly clawed back – but she had to cope with a new reality. She saw herself as the divinely-approved ruler; others, now, saw her as accountable to her people. It was not a comfortable place to be.

There is a question mark over Elizabeth’s decision, at the very last minute, to appoint James of Scotland as her successor. James probably had the best claim, but relations between them were strained. (Elizabeth spoke to him as if he were a small boy on the end of a leash, something that James found infuriating; her refusal to name him her successor meant that he had to look for support elsewhere, which did nothing for peaceful relationships.) It’s possible that Cecil and his fellows made the decision themselves, although nothing can be proved. They did have good reason, however, to choose a king who already had two sons; they would, at least, be spared another female ruler. To modern eyes, this sounds appalling; to them, it would have made perfect sense.

In many ways, Elizabeth was a tyrant, a person who was cosseted in luxury while her people starved. This was far from uncommon in those days. She can hardly be condemned for being no better than the average medieval monarch. The limitations caused by her sex made matters harder for her, although she managed to overcome them and rule – with a reasonable level of effectiveness – within her own country. That said, she also had problems committing herself to anything and constantly overestimated her ability to steer events outside Britain. This is also far from uncommon, now as well as then; successive American Presidents have run into hot water through assuming they could reshape the world to suit themselves. Elizabeth lacked their advantages – modern communications, a secure power base, a military not given to political interference – and suffered for it.

She was also personally abusive to people she felt had failed her trust, ranging from her maids of honour to her men. (Essex nearly drew a sword on her when she slapped him, something that could have changed the course of history.) As she grew older, she became nastier, bullying her cousin (who would later be sidelined after Elizabeth’s death) and more demanding of admiration from men who were increasingly younger, even though the idea of them ‘courting’ her was absurd. But her power was slipping and she knew it.

Against this must be set her achievements. Elizabeth fought a war with Spain, a vastly greater power, and triumphed through a combination of luck and good judgement. She was able to block Catholic (i.e. the Pope) influence within England. She also, for better or worse, preserved most of the powers of the monarchy, while avoiding many of the problems besetting Spain and France. And it should be noted that many of Elizabeth’s flaws, at least in the eyes of her people, would have been regarded as perfectly normal if she’d been male.

John Guy shows us a woman who was a living breathing person, not a figurehead. The book is an interesting read, although not entirely without problems, and I highly recommend it.