In which we discover Anne McCaffrey was a lot more prescient than me!

As the news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone racing round the world, to a wide range of reactions (to say the very least!) my response has been perhaps a little different to most.

Because I remembered writing this, back in 2012, when I wrote an appreciation of Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ for SFX magazine’s Book Club column.

While some detail now seems dated, notably reverence for Bob Dylan to equal Shakespeare, …

Shows how much I know 🙂

The specific story where Dylan’s music plays a vital role is ‘The Ship Who Killed’, first published in 1966. Helva, the brainship, is partnered with Kira, a practising ‘Dylanist’. What’s that? Kira explains:

‘A Dylanist is a social commentator, a protestor, using music as a weapon, a stimulus. A skilled Dylanist … can make so compelling an argument with melody and words that what he wants to say becomes insinuated into the subconscious

A really talented Dylan stylist … can create a melody with a message that everyone sings or hums, whistles or drums, in spite of himself. Why, you can even wake up in the morning with a good Dylan-styled song singing in your head. You can imagine how effective that is when you’re proselytising for a cause.”

For those who might like to read the whole piece, I’ve added it to my reviews page. Hopefully I can find time to add a few more recent reads there sometime!

Here’s an Amazon link to tell you a bit more about the book, always remembering you can buy it from any other retailer online – or why not visit your local bookshop?


It’s time to write letters to MPs to emphasise our opposition to Brexit – here’s why and how

Parliament’s back in Westminster today, and over the weekend, the media were reporting a cross-party initiative to insist on a House of Commons vote over leaving the single market, as well as high-level Conservative unease at how badly the general public, and the heavy-weight business organisations, responded to the Tory conference’s Hard Brexit and isolationist rhetoric.

The energy the Pro-Leave press are putting into rubbishing all this, turning their sneers on whoever they think is involved, and insisting it’s all a done deal anyway, makes me pay even closer attention. Because this is not a done deal. This was not a quiet revolution or an overwhelming mandate or anything remotely like it, and there are serious challenges going through the courts as we speak.

So now’s the time to have hundreds, thousands, ideally tens of thousands of letters landing on MPs desks and making the majority opposition to this unfolding disaster undeniable. They need to be hard copy letters, because MPs have a legal obligation to record and reply to those, unlike email which can and will be ignored. Individual letters, because anything that looks like cut-and-paste can and will be downgraded as not a serious expression of personal belief.

The time and effort which handling a large volume of letters demands of your MP’s office and staff is one of the most effective tools we have as constituents. It really gets attention.

It only needs to be a single page and no more than two at the most, even if like so many of us you could write a 10,000 word essay on the calamitous consequences of this botched referendum. Pick three, maybe a handful of the points that matter most to you. It’s not as if there’s a shortage.

If the bare-faced lies of the Leave campaign infuriate you, say so. Where’s that £350 million for the NHS?

If the utter lack of democratic safeguards when voting on such a vital issue appals you, say so. Where’s the legitimacy of 37% of the eligible electorate overruling the rest?

If the catastrophic impact that this has already had, and will have, on the economy and the tumbling Pound dismays you, say so.

If your own and your family’s employment prospects have and will be significantly harmed, say so. If for instance, you’re one of the 800,000 people whose jobs rely on motor manufacturing – or if you work in any of the many other globalised industries that can and will swiftly relocate when the UK is no longer an entry point to the Single Market.

If the price rises for day-to-day essentials that will go with a sinking pound and higher dollar costs for fuel will hit your household budget hard, say so.

If the Brexit Ministers insisting they can dictate terms to Europe enrages you, when the representatives of the 27 nations who will decide such things keep saying the exact opposite? Say so.

If the conspicuous lack of coherent policies from any of the Brexit Ministers irritates you, say so. Ask how exactly they intend to deliver closed borders without cutting the UK economy off from the Single Market?

If the lack of proper Parliamentary scrutiny of such far-reaching changes dismays you, say so.

If the way your MP behaves over this will influence your vote at the next general election, say so.

If you’re active in local party politics, whatever your party, and consider this a reselection litmus test, say so.

If your MP is one of those already opposing Brexit, assure them of your support, irrespective of party affiliation.

If you’ve had direct experience of, or have observed, the uptick in racist, xenophobic and other bigoted behaviour enabled by this result, spell that out.

I could go on – and on – but you get the idea. So get writing.

Don’t get aggressive. Don’t get abusive. Don’t give anyone any excuse to dismiss your letter as anything less than a valid expression of your opposition to this social, economic and political catastrophe.

If you get a mealy-mouthed, formulaic reply, write back and say that’s unacceptable. Outline a few more reasons why. Like I said, there’s no shortage.

If we want to take back control of our democracy, this is the time to speak up and be heard.

The River Kingdom Map for you to admire

For this new project, I took heed of the key lesson about maps which I learned when writing The Tales of Einarinn. Back then, I had a map quite literally scribbled on the back of an envelope as I wrote The Thief’s Gamble. Oh, I took considerable care calculating distances and travel times and all the variables that might affect such things. That sketch map was soon covered in notes and arrows and other hieroglyphs.

And then… my editor wanted a map to go in the actual book… Fortunately my husband trained as a design draughtsman and was able to reverse engineer a map from the final text. He then went away and drew a master map on actual draughting film as well as creating a digital version. Thereafter I could work from and update those.

This time round, I drew a far more careful map in the first place, as I developed the River Kingdom concept. Once we started planning the Shadow Histories collection, and being very well aware of my own artistic shortcomings, sought out a trained illustrator who could translate my efforts into something worth having.

Enter Sophie E. Tallis whose professional qualifications and experience are matched by her focus on getting a project exactly right. I thought I’d sent a comprehensive brief until she started asking questions! How high are the peaks in the hill country exactly? Which towns have ferries for crossing the river? Where exactly do those various roads go, because if there’s a road, there must be a destination. No one establishes a trade route unless they know there’s something worth having at the other end. And now, let’s talk colour samples and fonts and any number of other things that would never occur to me since I lack that sort of visual imagination. It really has been a fascinating process, and Sophie’s been a pleasure to work with. Also very patient whenever I’ve had to start an email with ‘ah, did I forget to mention such-and-such? It rather looks as though I did…’

The end result is this fabulous map. And there are a good few potential beginnings here as well. Sophie’s added in some lovely details here and there which are just crying out to have a story written around them… Well, that’s fun for another day. For now, enjoy this map, and you may also be interested in further details about the River Kingdom to be found here. Meantime I’m thinking about the best way to make an embroidery of that wonderful compass rose. Crewel work or cross-stitch? Hmmm…

Click on this map to go through to the larger version where you can zoom in for still more detail.

You’ll notice the watermark there to protect Sophie’s copyright. In due course we’ll have details of how to get prints etc.

A story of mine to listen to, thanks to Far Fetched Fables!

Click on over to Far Fetched Fables (one of the District of Wonders’ enterprises) and you will find an audio version of my story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’.

I wrote this for the ‘Resurrection Engines’ anthology, back in 2012, alongside a slew of fine writers well worth reading. We were all invited to take on a classic of Victorian literature and find some new and specifically steampunk twist.

I chose H Rider Haggard as I recall reading his books avidly in my early teens, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, H G Wells and other such classics found in a traditional girls’ grammar school library. I have always believed that our current speculative fiction tradition is rooted in these first mass-market, popular novels of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, written before genre boundaries and definitions became established.

Re-reading H Rider Haggard’s ‘She’ was an eye-opening experience. Naturally I was expecting to find outdated attitudes to race and gender and the influence of the Victorian ‘Great Man’ theories of history and society. Yes, indeed, I found them to a startling extent. I didn’t recall such things striking me so forcefully on first reading. In some ways, that’s reassuring. My world view doesn’t seem to have been warped as a result. On the other hand, this really does show the necessity of being alert to the differences between then and now, when revisiting the roots of our genre for inspiration.

Thankfully, there was already radical thought challenging such Imperial certainty, and growing impetus for reform in the late 19th Century, driven onward by men and women alike. There was a wealth of material for me to draw on, ensuring that ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’ is firmly rooted in historically accurate societal and technological movements of the time.

You’ll find this story alongside “Papagena” by Jay lake and Ruth Nestvold, so that’s another treat you have in store. Enjoy!

This is the very first piece of my fiction to be available in audio format. That sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Well, bear in mind that my first series came out when audio books were still being shipped as CDs and even audio cassettes. Yes, really… So only the very top-sellers got that treatment.

How things have changed, now that digital downloads are so quick and easy. Does that mean my books might get an audio release? Well, I have control over all those rights and would be happy to discuss such a project, so if you’re a fan of audio books, feel free to get in touch with your preferred provider and suggest they email me… 🙂

Resurrection Engines - a steampunk anthology with a twist

Bristolcon – my schedule and your chance to hold ‘Shadow Histories’ in your hand.

Bristolcon is a splendid one-day, regional SF&F convention in, unsuprisingly, Bristol. This year it’s on Saturday October 29th, at the Doubletree Hotel, which is convenient for travel by car or by train – within easy walking distance of Bristol Temple Meads station. Membership is £25 in advance or £30 on the door.

This year’s Guests of Honour are the artist Fangorn, and authors Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.

The full programme can be found here – click on through. Always bearing in mind that this is a month away and such plans are potentially subject to change.

My panels look very promising.

17.00 – Running the World / Cleaning the Toilets – One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. How can we build believable and effective governments in SF&F, and how can we prevent our utopias becoming dystopias (and should we try)? And while we’re focussed on the action at the top, who’s cleaning the toilets?

Ken MacLeod (M), John Baverstock, Ian Millsted, Juliet E McKenna, Jaine Fenn

18.00 – After the Heroes Have Gone – We all enjoy a big battle, especially on the big screen, but what happens afterwards? Who’s picking up the pieces of New York after the Avengers have smashed it up, who’s living in the wreckage of a Godzilla-stomped Tokyo and what are the Alderaanians who were off planet at the time supposed to do next? Wars have knock-on effects that aren’t always explored – we ask our panel to think about the fate of the ordinary folk, after the heroes have gone.:
Danie Ware (M), Joel Cornah, Juliet E McKenna, Chris Baker, R B Watkinson

And most exciting of all,and with thanks as ever to the wonderful Wizard’s Tower Press, we’ll be launching Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom that weekend! since this will be both an ebook and a print-on-demand publication, there’ll be copies on sale which I’ll naturally be happy to sign 🙂

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Got a story about Robots, Water or Death? Here’s your chance!

Excellent news – the ZNB Kickstarter to fund these three new anthologies has reached its funding target! Here’s what our lovely backers will be reading –

SUBMERGED is to feature science fiction or fantasy stories that are set underwater at some point. It does not have to be set completely underwater, but at some point the events of the story must lead in a natural way to an underwater adventure. There should be a significant reason for why the action must take place underwater; this should NOT be a story where it easily be rewritten on land and maintain its cohesion. We are attempting to fill half of the anthology with science fiction stories, and half with fantasy stories. Stories featuring more interesting settings underwater and twists on the typical underwater themes will receive more attention than those that use standard underwater tropes. In other words, we don’t want to see 100 stories dealing with Atlantis. If we do, it’s likely that only one, at most, would be selected for the anthology. So be creative, choose something different, and use it in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

ALL HAIL OUR ROBOT CONQUERORS! is to feature stories where the robots of the story somehow harken back to the 50s/60s style of robots. The story can be set in the far future, but at some point there should be a significant nod toward the robots from that era—either a significantly advanced robot that is simply housed in a 50s/60s style shell, or a robot exactly like those from the 50s/60s but used in an interesting and believable way in the story. Stories featuring more interesting takes on the 50s/60s style robots, and twists on how they are integrated into the story, will receive more attention than those with more generalized robots. So be creative and use your robot in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS is to feature stories where Death is a character in the story. The version of Death used should be unique, so consider all different types of versions of Death seen throughout history and in different cultures. Stories featuring more interesting takes on Death, and twists on how Death is integrated into the story, will receive more attention than those with more standard depictions of Death. So be creative and use Death in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, one reason why I enjoy being part of these projects is each ZNB anthology offers open submission slots. This really is a great chance for aspiring writers to be involved in a thoroughly professional publication.

So while I get on with firming up my ideas for a ‘Death of All Things’ story, have you got a tale ready to be told, or even just the see of an idea for one or more of these themes? Get thinking and writing!

Always remembering to read the Submission Guidelines in full – click here.


Mental health in fantasy fiction – where to draw the lines and how to do the colouring in?

A #HoldOnToTheLight post


The best fantasy is always rooted in reality and often it’s exploring harsh reality. A hundred years ago, a young officer invalided home from World War One began writing the poems and myths that would lead on to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote from his own experiences amid predominately male colleagues, struggling against brutal forces threatening to end the way of life that he cherished. His work reflects that – among other things. In the decades that have followed, the best fantasy fiction has continued such exploration and has expanded to encompass so much more.

Successive writers have considered the challenges faced by those marginalised through prejudice towards gender or race, and by those struggling with physical infirmity without sympathy or support – alongside eternal battles between Dark and Light and other classic themes. Where these stories are most readable and most memorable, their authors have avoided the pitfalls of worthy moralizing by making these challenges intrinsic to the narrative they’re creating. Nowadays increasing numbers of diverse voices across SF&F draw on their personal experience to give such stories ever more realistic depth and complexity.

So what about mental health? Because that’s part of our reality. Not just for writers by the way, or artists or musicians or anyone else creative. This idea that we must ‘suffer for our art’ or that there’s some mystical inspiration to be found in depression or anything else is one of the biggest myths out there. Along with all the authors I know, I’m at my most creative and inspired when I’m relaxed and content with my life. Just like everyone else.

Challenges to everybody’s peace of mind are constant and recurrent and surely that’s going to be same for fully rounded characters in fantasy fiction? How does a writer tackle this? By drawing on our own experience? This is where it gets tricky and not just because there’s still such stigma attached to admitting to depression or some other mental health condition, not least for fear that will be wholly and only how people will define you ever afterwards.

I’ve had two significant episodes of clinical depression in my life, requiring medication, therapy and support from qualified professionals. Thankfully that’s decades behind me now but from a writerly point of view, drawing on that experience would be problematic. Not for fear of giving away too much about myself, but because I clearly remember how being depressed is so horribly tedious. It’s dull, it’s monotonous, it’s never-ending (or so it seems at the time). It’s such wretchedly hard work to just get through a day and the only reward is another unutterably wearisome day exactly like it. All those metaphors about being weighed down with burdens, about struggling through a morass? Bunyan’s Slough of Despond? They’re classics because they’re so true.

None of which will make for fun reading, certainly in a major point of view character. Spending an entire morning summoning up the mental fortitude to leave the house to buy a pint of milk isn’t really the stuff of high heroics and thrilling adventure. So how do we square this circle of accurately reflecting life in all its aspects, good and bad, without writing a dismal story that sinks under waves of gloom?

Well, there’s including a significant character in the overall ensemble who’s got through depression and come out the other side. I have travelled that road twice after all, thanks to the help I received. That enabled me to identify the causes of my depression, both those specific to, and different for, each episode and the more deep-rooted, underlying issues common to both. More than that, I learned to spot early warning signs; to realise when I might be going down those same paths again. The mental wellness toolkit I’ve assembled as a result has enabled me to steer clear of the worst ever since.

That’s all well and good from a writing point of view and could potentially make for an interesting character arc, as long as it was unobtrusively integrated into the story. Done badly, it could be clumsy tokenism. It would also be horribly easy for writing that character to tip over into seemingly saying ‘See? If you can just pull yourself together, everything will be fine!’ Hearing that advice, however honestly well-meant, is one of the few things that can goad a depressed person to exhausted fury. That’s just not how it works. I remember that vividly too.

So what do we do, as writers? Give up, because it’s too difficult? But isn’t being a writer all about tackling the difficult stuff through fiction, in order to make sense of real life’s challenges? And representation matters, as we see proved time and time again, as SF&F moves however slowly and imperfectly towards a more genuine reflection of modern life, with all our variations of gender, race and physical capability. Don’t those facing the unseen challenges of mental health issues deserve to see their reality reflected too?

So let’s take a second look at those ways in which SF&F has developed beyond the “great deeds of great white men” point of view. Let’s look at successful examples of representation in fiction for women, for people of colour and so many more. These are invariably the characters for whom those issues are merely one facet of their lives and personalities. Yes, these things inform their choices, their relationships and thus, influence their role in a story, but these characters are never solely or wholly defined by that one overarching trait. Just like, y’know, real people.

So let’s write characters experiencing ups and downs in their mental health as honestly as we can. Let’s have them alongside people with chronic physical conditions, or recurrently disastrous love-lives, or dealing with something else entirely, not as tick-box tokens but as part of the gamut of believable people playing their part in our stories. Let’s write these characters with friends and support that can help them with their struggles, because that’s how things happen in real life. Let’s not sugar-coat their difficulties or underplay those challenges, because that’s real life as well. Progress towards mental wellness is so often very hard-won, and with setbacks along the way. Let’s never forget to do our due diligence and research, where we’re writing outside our own experience.

Then just maybe someone trying to understand the plight of a friend with depression will gain some helpful understanding. Maybe someone in the midst of those throes will see a glimmer of unforeseen light in that particular reflection of the darkness they know so well.

Is this the answer? Well, it’s one answer. I’m working my way through such questions and this is where I’ve got to thus far. No, it’s not easy to find constructive ways forward but I intend to keep trying, as well staying open to other people’s comments and suggestions. Because I know that’s what will make me a better writer.

About the campaign:

#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to and join us on Facebook

Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom – how about this for a cover?

Take a glance at the new Aldabreshin Compass covers and you’ll see why Ben Baldwin was the artist I wanted for this new book’s cover. Not because I wanted something just like those, far from it. Because I was confident that he could find the best way to give these stories and this entirely new fantasy setting their own distinctive visual character. If you’re not already aware of Ben’s versatility as an artist, do make time go and browse his website.

It really is a fascinating process for me as someone who’s always been very focused on words; handing over my writing to someone whose imagination and skills work in a completely different creative area. Trying to explain the sort of thing that I’m after, when I cannot actually visualise it myself, answering an artist’s questions as best I can – without being distracted by wanting to ask ‘Why choose that particular episode or character to illustrate?’.

Then there’s seeing the draft sketches and having discussions about detail, which invariably sees me hunting for the photos and other visual references I’ve used in the writing. Finally there’s the thrill of getting something that’s both utterly surprising that also makes me nod and think, ‘yes, that’s it.’

Not that that’s the end of the process. Ben’s done all the cover layout and other design work here. And that’s not the end of it either. You remember I said I use visual references as I write? Pictures so often stir my imagination. I’m already seeing prompts for new stories in this one…

So here it is for you to admire. You’ll get your chance to read all these stories and to discover exactly what inspired Ben soon!

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Click here to see the full wraparound version as well.

Awards News – The British Fantasy Society and the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy

This weekend saw assorted awards presented here in the UK, as part of Fantasycon by the Sea, in Scarborough.

The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy –

RAVENHEART AWARD (Best cover art)
Jason Chan for The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence

The Vagrant by Peter Newman

LEGEND AWARD (Best novel)
The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence

The British Fantasy Society Awards –

Best anthology: The Doll Collection, ed. Ellen Datlow (Tor Books)

Best artist: Julie Dillon

Best collection: Ghost Summer: Stories, Tananarive Due (Prime Books)

Best comic/graphic novel: Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV and Cris Peter (Image Comics) (#2–5)

Best fantasy novel (the Robert Holdstock Award): Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Macmillan)

Best film/television production: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Peter Harness (BBC One)

Best horror novel (the August Derleth Award): Rawblood, Catriona Ward (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Best independent press: Angry Robot (Marc Gascoigne)

Best magazine/periodical: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, ed. Scott H. Andrews (Firkin Press)

Best newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award): Zen Cho, for Sorcerer to the Crown (Macmillan)

Best non-fiction: Letters to Tiptree, ed. Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)

Best novella: The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, Usman T. Malik (

Best short fiction: Fabulous Beasts, Priya Sharma (

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award): The FantasyCon redshirts, past and present

Something for everyone there, I’d say!

And apropos Zen Cho’s win for the excellent ‘Sorcerer to the Crown’, you can find my review of it here

You can find her guest post reflecting on life as a debut novelist here.

So epublishing’s great for short stories – but how exactly do you do an anthology…?

The advent of ebooks has made all sorts of differences to the publishing landscape. The resurgence of shorter form fiction is merely one example. Now we’re seeing standalone stories about our favourite characters. We’re seeing writers gathering up short stories they’ve written for widely scattered publications and issuing them as collections (like my River Kingdom stories). We’re seeing authors getting together to write stories around a common theme – with some uncommonly good results, as seen in ‘Alien Artifacts’. Readers can now enjoy all these different approaches via their phones and tablets, as they travel to and from work and/or in other bits and pieces of downtime which don’t necessarily suit the next chapter of a novel.

But as with so much in epublishing, just throwing something together and throwing it out there isn’t going to win success. There’s just as much hard work involved, requiring the application of specific skills, involved in making an anthology which people will read, enjoy and recommend, as there is in epublishing a novel. One key difference is – there’s all manner of useful advice out there on how to write a good book. How to put together a decent anthology? Not so much.

Realising this has thankfully prompted Joshua Palmatier to embark on a detailed and illuminating series of posts, drawn from his own experience editing anthologies first for DAW and more recently for ZNBLLC. If you’re thinking of doing any sort of collection, this is essential reading. Even if you’re not, I’ll bet you’ll learn something new and useful.

And since we’re here, let’s check on the latest ZNB Kickstarter – for three intriguing anthologies so far. At the time of writing? $16,899 pledged of the $20,000 goal with 8 days to go.

Close enough to be thrilling. Far enough away to be challenging. I really do want to see these anthologies funded, so if you haven’t already checked them out, do go and take a look!

ZNB-alien artefacts