She-Who-Thinks-For-Herself. A story free to read for International Women’s Day

Resurrection Engines - a steampunk anthology with a twist

First published in Resurrection Engines, an anthology of Scientific Romance published by Snowbooks, and edited by Scott Harrison.

We were invited to write a steampunk take on a classic of Victorian/Edwardian literature. I decided it was time for a Suffragette take on H. Rider Haggard.

An audio version is also available here via Far Fetched Fables, at District of Wonders

A Tale of Modern Women in the Dark Continent

My beloved aunt, Phyllis Charteris, has received none of the plaudits lavished on the laurel-garlanded heroes who explore the remote heart of Africa. The Royal Geographic Society might deign to acknowledge Mary Kingsley after the success of her publication, ‘Travels in West Africa’ but there is not one quarter-inch of a newspaper column recording my aunt’s achievements.

Such injustice has galled me ever since my return from the trackless swamps of the upper Zambesi. However I was sworn to secrecy for reasons which this narrative will soon explain.

Now Mr H Rider Haggard has published the reminiscences of his Cambridge acquaintance sheltering beneath the pseudonym “Horace Holly”. Consequently I am free to share my aunt’s achievements with the world.

But I am outstripping my story’s proper order. Our family’s ties with the Cape Colony were first established by my grandfather’s brothers, both mining engineers. When my brother Eustace took up a position with Lloyds Bank in Cape Town, I had recently concluded my studies at Somerville Hall in Oxford. I decided to go with him as his housekeeper but in hopes that this outpost of Empire might offer more opportunities for educated women than dismissing us as mere blue-stockings.

I had no notion of how wondrously my hopes would be fulfilled.

Naturally I was mindful of following in Aunt Phyllis’s footsteps. She had travelled out to marry a dear friend of one of her cousins, met when both young men returned home for their university education. Alas, her fiancé succumbed to malaria while she was on board ship. Declining to return to England, she joined her uncle’s household as governess to his younger children.

Family lore relates that Phyllis found herself ill-suited to such domesticity. When the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were discovered, she insisted on inspecting these wondrous remnants of lost civilisation for herself.

That was the last heard of her for over two decades. Now I am able to take up her story and a marvellous tale it is.

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Rocks and Shoals – the third Aldabreshin Compass short story.

Western Shore  Artwork Ben Baldwin
Western Shore
Artwork Ben Baldwin

I am really enjoying writing these stories – even if fitting them in around other work and obligations can be tricky.

So here’s the next installment of Dyal’s adventures. This one rounds out and explains the shocking events in the Redigal domain referenced in the early chapters of Western Shore.

Click here to read the story – Rocks and Shoals

If you want to catch up with the story so far, the first and second stories are here – along with a few other things, all free to read and enjoy.

Fire in the Night – an Aldabreshin Compass short story

There are always loose threads in stories. This is by no means a bad thing, as long as there aren’t so many the reader ends up confused, and provided they’re not too vital to the plot. Real life never wraps up everything neatly so why should fiction?

Then there are the twists and turns in the action when it would be really interesting to see someone else’s point of view but where the overall narrative needs to stick to its established path, not get lost in some digression or diversion. Once again, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Readers invariably amuse themselves speculating on those untrodden roads.

Then there are the characters who appear to play a small part in some chapter, only to disappear, never to be seen again. They’ve served their purpose and a writer must be ruthless, if they don’t want their novel to sink beneath the weight of a cast of thousands.

Writers often find inspiration for further stories in all these things. I can point to any number of incidents or plot elements in my four series of books thus far which have stemmed from a fan’s email asking ‘What happened about…?’

It’s not just the fans who wonder. While I was preparing Southern Fire, first of the Aldabreshin Compass books, I came across Dyal, who I’d completely forgotten about in the decade since I wrote the books. He’s a young Daish domain warrior who bravely plays his part in defying treachery… and vanishes into the darkness, his ultimate fate unknown…

My work on cleaning up the text came to screeching halt. WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM???

Well that turned out to be one of those questions I just couldn’t let go. So I’ve written a short story beginning the tale of his adventures as he becomes involved in other events that happen during the course of this series of books, which only ever get referred to in passing, given the necessary focus on the main story. It should be fun for those of you who are already familiar with the books and for those of you who’ve just started to read them.

For those of you who are still wondering about this series, it’ll give you a flavour of the Aldabreshin Archipelago and the tribulations and treacheries first encountered in Southern Fire, continued in Northern Storm and still to come in Western Shore and Eastern Tide, all to be published in ebook through the invaluable Wizard’s Tower Press, and available through your preferred online retailer.

Click here to read Fire in the Night , first of the Quartering the Compass stories.

Southern Fire.  Artwork by Ben Baldwin
Southern Fire.
Artwork by Ben Baldwin

Kickstarter 2/3rds funded after a week? Time to relax! Er, no, it isn’t…

Crowd-funding’s a new, wonderful and truly weird thing. I’ve been involved in a couple of these now, though I’ve yet to dare try one on my own, for fear of so very publicly coming unstuck if a project didn’t meet its target. Some writer friends like C.E.Murphy and Laura Anne Gilman have more courage than me, so I’ve watched their experiences as well. The peaks and troughs and ebbs and flows in the way people sign up really is fascinating. I know there are folk out there keenly analysing the patterns, with conversations that almost certainly include the word ‘algorithm’.

Well, all I know is there’s never a time to be complacent, from Day One to Day Thirty. So if you’ve been looking at the ‘Temporally Out of Order’ Kickstarter and thinking, ‘Ooh, that sounds like a really good read,’ and now you’re seeing we’re two-thirds there, you’re thinking, ‘oh, they’ll be fine, I’ll just pick up the book later on,’… please consider backing us now. Because if we don’t meet that target, there won’t be a book later…

And yes, obviously, I have a horse in this race. As a stretch goal author, I really, really want to be involved! I’ve got such a fine idea… and I’ll tell you all about that next Monday, by which time I really hope that first target will be met, the first stretch goal will be secure and we’ll be on our way to my story, Jean Marie Ward’s and Jack Campbell’s.

Meantime, if you’ve come to this website for the first time thanks to this Kickstarter, hello and welcome.

If you’re wondering what my writing is like, you can read the opening chapters of my novels and also download the free ebook of my short story The Wizard’s Coming.

If you’re curious to see a little of what I write other than epic fiction, I’ve collected together a couple of short stories for free reading here.

Enjoy!

While I go and see where you can find a taste of my anthology stable-mates’ writing.

Meantime, let’s see how the project is going?

Identity Theft – a short story I wrote ages ago and the tweet that reminded me of it

At some point over World Fantasy Con weekend, someone, I think it was @gavreads, tweeted something along the lines of ‘do authors realise they own a little bit of our souls?’ I knew that reminded me of something I once wrote but I couldn’t think what… Aha, rummaging around in the back cupboards of the hard drive yesterday, I came across this! Which flips the idea completely, and isn’t really my usual style of thing. Still, you may find it amusing/creepy, according to taste. And no, I’m really not at all sure what I had in mind when I wrote it.

        Identity Theft

     Dear Miss Enstone,
    You are my favourite writer. I am sick in hospital and read your books a lot. My favourite character is Delly. I hope she finds her grandfather. Mummy says she will by me a signed copy of your next book when my chematherapy is over.
    Love
     Amy

    Rubbing his knuckles, he set the sparkly gel pen down beside his card-index box. This immature rounded script made his hand ache. The spelling mistakes were a good touch but was he really thinking himself into the mind of a terminal ten year old girl?
    He slid the pink notepaper with frolicking puppies, their fluffy ears askew, into the matching envelope. A sponge dampened the flap to avoid leaving saliva. Stamps were handily self-adhesive. A second class stamp. Amy’s mother would save every penny. Copying the address from his file card for Annie Enstone, he tossed the envelope onto the pink pile.
    He glanced at the scarred oak door, securely bolted top and bottom. He’d slept late and hadn’t heard the other students bickering over the bathroom or accusing each other of using up the milk. But everyone should have left by now, for their lectures or their labs. They probably thought he was already in the library, dissecting English Literature.
     He shoved the insecure office chair with its fraying seat backwards over blotched carpet originally the colour of cold tea. Reaching down, he fetched out his portable typewriter, and set it on the mug rings marring the varnish of the once elegant table. He threaded a sheet of paper deftly through the rollers and stripped latex gloves off with relief. Typing didn’t leave fingerprints.
     Tossing the flaccid gloves over to the printer, for the next time the paper tray needed refilling, he sighed. Writing the letters was so much quicker with the computer’s mail merge slotting in names and addresses. He smiled. The appeal from the school librarian keen to inspire reluctant readers and gifted and talented students alike was a good piece of work. Her plan to display signed photographs of famous writers was certain to flatter Mandy Oldsworth’s vanity, and those other media darlings.
    But the typewriter was better for these next letters. He picked up another selection of index cards. Let’s see how Edmund Crawley and other reclusive, eccentric writers would respond.

    Dear Mr Crawley,
    I have long wished to tell you how much pleasure your books have given me over the years. Latterly I have been re-reading your earlier works and find them as much a delight as ever.
    Recent publications are unfortunately beyond my means as I currently reside in a home for retired priests in North Yorkshire. I am writing therefore to ask if you might donate signed copies of ‘Angel’s Breath’ and ‘The Baldock Brewer’ to our small library—

    An angry fist hammered on the door. ‘It was your turn to put the bins out, wanker!’
    ‘Dick.’ A second voice sniggered. ‘Sorry, Richard.’
    He sat silently, shoulders hunched, heart pounding.
    ‘What the fuck’s he doing in there?’
    The voices retreated, boots heavy on the stairs.
    ‘Maybe those fucking books have finally fallen on his head.’
    As the front door slammed, he looked around. The faded, dated wallpaper was invisible behind the countless volumes salvaged from boot sales and charity shops to be ordered by genre, author and date of publication on the shelves he had made from scavenged bricks and plundered planks.
    He returned to his work. By the time he’d typed the final envelope the ribbon was fading to illegibility. He scowled. They weren’t that easy to get. Then he smiled. It gave an authenticity to the penurious priest’s plea. Yawning, he swept all the stamped letters into a stack. Should he go and post them now?
    No. He’d worked hard enough, this morning and last night, making his rounds of the derelict houses and tenantless offices that served as his return addresses. It was time for some reward, and the hardest work of all.
    He dragged a battered rucksack out from under the table. As he upended it, board-backed envelopes and jiffy bags tumbled onto the floor. He sat cross-legged, tearing them open. Photographs made one pile, books another. Virgin compliments slips and polite PA’s responses were tossed into the bin with the envelopes. Notes from authors more generous with their time went with the photographs. He ripped signed front pages from the books, desecrated remnants discarded.     By the time he had dealt with everything, his heart was racing.
Kneeling, he reached for a wooden box in the darkness under the bed. Opening it revealed a small book bound in creased cream calf-skin, two knives, one white-handled, one black, and an empty crystal inkwell. In their midst an octagonal blue candle squatted, part-burnt, in a shallow silver platter. Runes and sigils were carved deep into its facets.
    He gathered up the photographs, autographs and notes before lighting the candle with steel and flint. It burned with a greenish flame, oily smoke curling upwards. No problem. He’d long since taken the battery out of the smoke alarm.
    The book fell readily open at the right page. He barely had to look at the cramped mediaeval script any more. Slow and precise, he recited the arcane Latin as he sliced the inside of his wrist with the black knife’s razor edge. His blood dripped onto the first author’s signature. The candle flared, vapours rising, gouged runes glowing eerily bright as if illuminated from deep within.
    The whole room darkened, though the sun beyond the threadbare curtains shone as bright as ever. Shadows under the table and in the corners thickened and spread. The blackness edged closer, overwhelming the stains on the carpet. Harsh breath rasped, not merely his own. Something was crawling out of the darkness behind him. Its cold presence raised gooseflesh on the back of his neck. Look and all would be lost. He focused on the signed photograph, still reciting. Slowly the writing dissolved, sliding viscous down the blandly smiling portrait. He held a corner carefully over the open mouth of the inkwell. The darkness dripped sullenly down. A satisfied sigh behind him sent a curl of cold breath like smoke over his shoulder. He reached for a friendly note. Blood obliterated the kindly thoughts wishing little Amy well. Magic washed black malice into the inkwell.
    By the time he had finished, the unseen presence behind him was breathing slowly, sated. Drenched with pungent sweat, he felt light-headed. The scars on his arm burned where he’d re-opened successive cuts to keep the sorcery flowing. Hands shaking, he laid down the knife and snapped the silver top of the inkwell shut. Reciting the final verses in a hoarse whisper, he snuffed out the candle. The darkness retreated with a faint hiss of disappointment. Alone again, he drew a trembling breath of heartfelt relief.
    But he’d made the mistake of leaving the ink once before, only to find it dried to a useless sludge. He forced himself to his feet, crystal vial in one hand, scrabbling in the box for an old fashioned steel-nibbed pen in the other. Sitting at the table, he reached for a spiral-bound notebook. The place where he’d stopped before marked with a plaited lock of his own long hair. He opened the inkwell and a hint of shadow swirled inside the neck. Dipping his pen, he sat and waited for the words to come.
    They would come. This time there’d be no rejection slips.