“Journeys”, “The Road to Hadrumal”, and a story’s journey

Today sees the publication of an anthology which I’m very pleased to be part of: Journeys (from Woodbridge Press) offers fourteen epic fantasy stories of daring, death and glory from an array of talented and interesting authors. To be precise, there are tales from John Gwynne, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Gail Z. Martin, me, Julia Knight, Juliana Spink Mills, Jacob Cooper, Samanda R Primeau, Steven Poore, Davis Ashura, Dan Jones, Charlie Pulsipher, Anna Dickinson, and Thaddeus White.

My own story? Well, I may not be writing novels set in Einarinn at the moment but that world is still very much in my thoughts, both in terms of what’s going on with all the characters we know and also, I find I reflect now and then, on key moments in that world’s history. The Road to Hadrumal picks up on some hints dropped throughout those books, from The Thief’s Gamble all the way to The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, about the origins of wizardry’s organisation. I thought I’d look a little more closely at Trydek, the very first Archmage. Who was he, before he became the revered father of magic? Before he made his way to Hadrumal? What prompted him to make that particular journey? What sent elemental magic down the path that’s lead to its power and influence in Einarinn’s present day?

Well, you can read the story to find out. What I want to talk about here is how writing this particular story enabled me to show a group of aspiring SF&Fantasy writers the journey that a piece of fiction takes, whether you’re just starting out, or whether you’re someone like me with fifteen novels and umpteen short stories to your credit. More than that, I’m convinced that every story must take this journey if it’s going to be worth reading.

Last December I was teaching on a residential course at Moniack Mhor, the Scottish Creative Writing Centre, up near Inverness. As part of my preparation, I had submissions from the students to critique. This means I arrived a folder of pages extensively marked up with red pen… Now, getting your work back covered in queries, suggestions and corrections is not necessarily an easy thing to handle. Writing’s such an intensely personal thing and we invest so much time and effort in it, that seeing it criticized can really sting. I know that full well myself. So what could I offer these keen writers, to ease that impact?

I realised I could show them the editorial notes that I had been sent for this particular story. As it happened, that was a page’s worth. Now, Teresa Edgerton knows what she’s doing. She started off by telling me what she particularly liked in the story, highlighting original angles that had caught her eye and complimenting me on my clean prose. That was about three or four lines worth.

And then… she highlighted the things which I needed to address in that final draft story. Points where the pace needed looking at. Points where character motivations and their reactions needed further consideration. Points where what I had written might challenge reader engagement. She offered a few thoughts on possible routes to pursue, though of course, as all good editors agree, deciding what to do was up to me. It’s my story after all.

Those notes filled the rest of the page. Did this mean this was a bad story? Did this mean I was kidding myself calling myself a writer? Did it mean that I’d learned nothing over those fifteen novels and however many stories? Not at all. I’m an experienced author and I’ve learned to demand a high standard of myself. (Go and read some of these free stories if you want to check.)

But every story needs fresh eyes. In this particular instance, Teresa’s viewpoint was invaluable and all the more so because she’s not an established reader of my Einarinn books. Her comments made me realise that I had been subconsciously writing for people with a far greater knowledge of my existing work than was either fair or desirable in a story like this. Among other things, I was presuming background knowledge that would generate tension that wasn’t there on the page. I was including additional details to tweak tantalizing loose threads from the novels which played no direct part in these events.

Was I thrilled to learn this? No, of course I wasn’t, not initially. I told you that feedback can sting, even now, even just a little bit. Surely my story was perfect? I must have grumbled into my coffee for oh, at least two minutes…

Then I told myself that was more than enough self-indulgence and got to work. Because on my personal journey as a writer over nearly twenty years now, I’ve learned that this is how writing good fiction works. So I sat and thought and then I tightened things up here and there. I cut and trimmed elsewhere, and clarified this and that. It wasn’t a great deal of work but now that I had seen this story through Teresa’s eyes, I had a whole new, sharper focus.

So that’s the story of this particular tale’s journey. Enjoy!

Oh, and those aspiring writers at Moniack Mhor? They worked with me so positively on my feedback that I have great hopes of their future success.

“Journeys” on Amazon UK

“Journeys” on Amazon US

Revisiting the Icicle Witch and the days before The River Kingdom

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin
Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Those who’ve enjoyed the short stories free to read on this website will find a familiar name in the tale ‘A Warning Shiver’, which is now to be found in the new ‘Shadow Histories’ collection. They will discover that the Icicle Witch is now firmly entrenched in River Kingdom folklore, years after the first references to her, in ‘Patience, a Womanly Virtue’ which you can read here.

Is this all part of some cunning writerly plan, eight years in the making? That story was first published in the British Fantasy Society Yearbook 2009 after all. Sorry, no. ‘Patience’ is simply another short story where I was exploring elements that I first started putting together in the new collection’s first two stories, ‘Walking Shadows’ and ‘Noble Deceit’. The Sun Goddess and the Moon God both feature, along with the religious orders that honour them, as well as noble barons owing fealty to a king.

Though it’s interesting to look at this tale alongside the other Shadow Histories stories. It’s now apparent, with the benefit of hindsight, that this is a tale from the days of long ago, before the River Kingdom was established. It’s a story of a fragile and disputed royal succession, and of the merciless lengths some people will go to, in order to secure their own power. As well as the enduring power of enmity and the way such hatreds take on a life of their own.

Where did the idea of the Icicle Witch come from? I’m honestly not sure, other than recalling my thoughts turning to cold and ice, when I was looking for a concept of malice to set against the twin and cooperative, complementary deities embodied in the Sun and the Moon. I’d say it’s fairly obvious my subconscious went riffling through memories from my childhood reading, to draw on Narnia’s White Witch and Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, among other precursors.

I decided not to include this story in the new collection. For one thing, it’s been free to read here for a good while now. More than that, all the other stories take place in the same general time frame, generations later, when the River Kingdom is secure and prosperous. The collection’s tales also all have a magical element that’s notably absent here.

But still… if the myth of the Icicle Witch was already becoming common currency in rumour so many years before, how would such folklore become manifest in the era of the Shadow Histories? As soon as I wondered that, I realised I had the basis for a new and original story. That was something I wanted to write for this book, so that even my keenest readers will find something they’ve never seen before.

As for the sequence of events between the days of Valdese wreaking her patient vengeance, and the unquestioned rule of the Paramount King? That remains to be seen… and perhaps, written…

To learn more about the River Kingdom, its places, its peoples and its magic, click here.

For links to buy the Shadow Histories collection, click here

Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom – here’s how to get a copy!

Keen readers at Bristolcon were able to get their hands on a copy of the paperback, and the same will be true for those of you at Eurocon and at Novacon 🙂

Elsewhere, for online shopping,

UK readers can get the Kindle edition here

US readers can get the Kindle edition here

US readers can get the Nook edition here.

For the Kobo ebook, click here

The paperback should in theory be available through Amazon already but independently published titles like this which aren’t sold via their own CreateSpace system are so often inexplicably delayed…

Thankfully, that’s not the only game in town.

To get the paperback from Barnes & Noble in the US, click here

For UK readers, click on over to Tangent Books and support an independent e-retailer 🙂

You should also be able to order the paperback through your local bookshop in the UK and in the US – it’s listed in their wholesale catalogues.

I’ll update with more links as the vagaries of availability smooth themselves out!

And could I ask, if you’ve read and enjoyed the book, could you please consider leaving a few words of review with your online retailer of choice? With a project like this, those reviews really do make a big difference…

For those looking for an introduction to this world, its people, its places and its magic, click here.

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin
Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Writing news – ‘Alien Artifacts’

ZNB-alien artefacts

As regular readers will know, I thoroughly enjoy contributing to the themed anthologies edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier. So far I’ve had stories in ‘After Hours‘, ‘The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity‘ and ‘Temporally Out of Order‘. And I don’t just enjoy writing for these books. One of the great pleasures of anthologies is seeing what other writers have done with the same theme.

Next up, I have a story titled ‘The Sphere’ in ‘Alien Artifacts’. Kickstarter backers have already had the fun of reading this collection and now the ebook edition can be pre-ordered. The mass-market paperback will follow shortly.

What’s this anthology about? Well, here’s what the back cover will tell you

What might we run into as we expand beyond Earth and into the stars? As we explore our own solar system and beyond, it seems inevitable that we’ll run into aliens … and what they’ve left behind. Alien artifacts: what might they reveal about us as we try to unlock their secrets? What might they reveal about the universe?

In this anthology, nineteen of today’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors explore how discovering long lost relics of alien civilizations might change humanity. Join Walter H. Hunt, Julie Novakova, David Farland, Angela Penrose, S.C. Butler, Gail Z. Martin & Larry N. Martin, Juliet E. McKenna, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Andrija Popovic, Jacey Bedford, Sofie Bird, James Van Pelt, Gini Koch, Anthony Lowe, Jennifer Dunne, Coral Moore, Daniel J. Davis, C.S. Friedman, and Seanan McGuire as they discover the stars and the secrets they may hold—both dark and deadly and awe-inspiring.

What’s my story about? Well, when an alien scout crashlands on Earth, it brings a whole shipload of things for scientists to try to fathom. Will they solve these vital puzzles before that scout’s fellow space-farers turn up to find out what happened?

For those of you who prefer to use Kobo, you can find the ebook here and a quick search will find you all the other anthologies.

And whatever your preference for reading and purchasing, don’t forget to check out the other anthologies from ZNB – ‘Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens‘ and ‘Were-‘ for still more excellent reading.

One last note – this is merely the first of various writing updates I’ll be posting over the next few days 🙂

Introducing the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom – coming this autumn from Wizard’s Tower Press

Writing an extended sequence of novels like the Tales of Einarinn and my subsequent series set in that world doesn’t stop a writer like me from having other ideas. In many cases, that idea will be a one-shot wonder just right for a short story. Sometimes though, that short story turns out to be the first step on a longer journey.

Back in 2008 I was invited to contribute to an anthology entitled ‘Imaginary Friends’. I began thinking about the ways in which such a friend could be both real and imaginary – to one person at least. If everyone knew what was happening, there wouldn’t be much of a story. But if only one person could see this mysterious friend, what then? Comedy? We’ve all seen that episode in every telly SF/fantasy series and in films from ‘Harvey’ onwards. What if this is something darker and more mysterious? Monsters from the Id? That’s one classic Science Fiction answer – but what if there are no such easy explanations?

window on different worlds A

What if there’s uncanny magic at work, something imperfectly understood? Because magic doesn’t always have to be codified and organised by learned, collegiate wizards like those in Hadrumal. What if such magical creatures come from a parallel realm of superstition and myth? Let’s imagine a world with different layers of existence like those glimpsed in a picture that’s been hanging on my wall ever since my sister gave the family our pick of the pieces she did for her Art A Level?

But no matter how dangerous it might be, some people will always make use of magic, or at least, they will make the attempt. Meantime, surely some of those with such perilous power will feel a responsibility to protect those who remain unawares? Who will watch over the vulnerable? Who will watch the watchmen? What could I do with such universal SF and fantasy questions in this particular setting?

I’ve been exploring these and other ideas in various stories and one novella set within the River Kingdom ever since. The more I’ve written about it, the underlying concept and this new fantasy realm without the fixed and comforting borders of coasts and seas has steadily expanded. Now I’m seeing possibilities for further and longer stories set in this world, exploring the relationships and conflicts between its tangible and intangible aspects. So the time is right to offer this collection – with the addition of one entirely new story. Those who’ve come across one or two of these tales thus far can now enjoy them all. Those who’ve only read my Einarinn books can enter a whole new fantasy world.

As always, I am indebted to the talented people I’m working with, providing key skills that I lack. Ben Baldwin, who you’ll recall did the fabulous Aldabreshin Compass artwork you can admire to the left of this post, has produced another stunning cover. Sophie E Tallis is working on a truly awesome map. Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press has been getting to grips with all the intricacies of making the book available in paperback as well as electronic formats.

Updated 7/11/2016 The book’s now out in ebook and paperback 🙂
You can find details of this world, its people, places and magic here, along with Sophie’s fabulous map and a link to purchase info via Wizard’s Tower Press.

Western Shore. Mapping the Aldabreshin Archipelago and beyond.

ac-map-sm

‘Where did this unforeseen enemy come from?’ That’s the central question in this third novel of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet. Swiftly followed by ‘how did they get here?’, ‘why did they come?’ and ‘why are they so brutal?’

Kheda and his allies, old and new, discover most of the answers as Western Shore unfolds but before I could write any of that, I had to work out all these things for myself. Not only deciding where these unknown invaders did come from but establishing what had changed to enable them to cross the vast western ocean, since they’d never been seen before. ‘Well, they just decided to,’ simply wasn’t an option, any more than ‘because they’re just evil,’ is ever a satisfactory answer to ‘what makes the bad guys so bad?’

At least I had a map of the Archipelago to start with. I’d learned my lesson after having to reverse engineer the original Einarinn map from accurately calculated travel details in the text and my (literally) back-of-an-envelope sketch not long before The Thief’s Gamble was published. Okay, my husband had to do the actual work – I was and remain thankful that he’s an engineer whose apprenticeship including training as a draughtsman. Incidentally, he’s the one who insisted the Einarinn maps have projection lines, when I explained I needed a map which I could put a ruler on anywhere to measure distances on the same scale. He naturally felt thoroughly vindicated when we got an enthusiastically appreciative letter from a Geography Ph.D student in Washington State, USA, for whom flat-earth fantasy maps were a personal bug bear. But I digress.

As you see from this far more extensive map, I had the upper half of the Archipelago mapped by the end of The Tales of Einarinn, so extending the island groups and chains southward was easy enough. But then I had to decide what lay out to the west. ‘Here be dragons’ might be literally true but I needed to know where and why, and crucially, why they were on the move for the first time in more than living memory.

Because ocean and atmospheric currents had changed somehow? That looked like a promising possibility so I went off to do some research, including but by no means limited to buying The National Geographic Atlas of the Oceans and doing detailed searches through my National Geographic Archive CD-Roms. I learned all sorts of useful facts about jet streams, thermohaline circulation, deep cold water flows, tectonic plates and undersea ridges, as well as weather patterns, and what causes trade winds, the doldrums and El Nino. All fascinating and all terms and systems it would be impossible to reference directly in an epic fantasy novel without ruining, well, the atmosphere. This is definitely a situation where the Iceberg Rule of Research applied. Only a tenth of this work shows above the surface, which is to say, appears in the final novel, but that couldn’t be there without the other ninety percent.

maps in progress

Now I had the key information which I could add to my map and integrate into the story. More than that, I was now seeing more ways in which wind and sea currents and the distribution of islands would affect travel and alliances within the Archipelago. This work was already influencing the course of the events I had planned for Eastern Tide. It ultimately contributed to The Hadrumal Crisis as well but that’s another story.

But all this work stayed on the papers on my desk. When the Aldabreshin Compass was published in paperback in the UK, we were all forced to agree that the scale and layout of the Archipelago meant reproducing the whole thing at that page size could only offer readers a scatter of uninformative dots. When Tor produced the US hardback, they had more room to work with and included a very handsome map but that could still only offer a section of the Archipelago, unable to show its relationship to the mainland.
tor compass map small
So only a limited number of fans got to see even that much. And as with the admirable Einarinn maps in the Orbit paperbacks, the copyright for that specific depiction of my original material remains with the publisher, not with me.

Well, that was then and this is now. As those who’ve bought Southern Fire and Northern Storm already know, these new ebook editions include a map of the entire Archipelago and now I’m adding it to the website. This time I have my elder son to thank, who took on the not inconsiderable task of cleaning up the digital scan of my master paper copy, with all its creases and pencil scribbles, as well as collating all the other bits of information jotted on sections I’d enlarged and printed off separately to cover with more coloured arrows and notes. Finally he added his own bit of artistic flair, deciding it needed to look like something found in a Hadrumal wizard’s archive, maybe left by some ambitious cloud mage seeing just how far up he could take a scrying spell. I reckoned he’d earned the right to do that.

So is this it? Well, as you can see, there’s still an awful lot of this world still to be mapped – and we haven’t even found out what might be happening in those lands we can already see but haven’t yet visited…

Light and Shade in Epic Fantasy Fiction versus Grimdark

The ebook of The Assassin’s Edge sees The Tales of Einarinn series finally completed for e-readers. Preparing these editions has been interesting for many reasons. It’s been fascinating to revisit what I was writing a decade and more ago. I honestly had forgotten quite how gruesome, violent and downright spine-chilling some of the events in Assassin are. But even then, and even though the term wasn’t in general usage in those days, I don’t think the book can ever be labelled Grimdark. That’s true of the other epic fantasies I was reading at the time. Because there’s so much else in the Tales and other such series.

More than that, when I compare Assassin and its contemporaries to the epic fantasy novels I’ve been reading recently for review, the more convinced I’m becoming that Grimdark is devolving into a narrowing focus that’s stifling creativity in our genre. The more the current visibility bias in bookshops drives sales towards downbeat stories dominated by moody blokes in cloaks, the worse this will get.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating fluffy feel-good tales where everyone gets a happy ending and even the villains are redeemed with hugs and kisses. I’m all for hard edges in epic fantasy. Those were definitely a feature of books such as Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane and The Darwath Trilogy, Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, all of which enthralled me as I turned to writing seriously myself. I vividly recall the visceral impact of reading David Gemmell’s Legend for the first time, swiftly followed by The King Beyond the Gate and Waylander.

These writers were absolutely what epic fantasy needed to stop the genre trundling down an equally stultifying path towards naive, consolatory fiction. I can assuredly see the value and appeal of tales where characters learn in the hardest possible way that life isn’t fair, virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded and you just have to get through hard luck as best you can. These are all aspects of real life and as I’ve said so often, realism is essential to give fantasy fiction a solid foundation.

That’s my first problem with Grimdark. Unrelenting and universal misery in a story is so often as unrealistic as non-stop rainbows and kittens. Unless there’s sufficient context within the world-building to explain why brutes behave as they do, all this violence becomes merely nasty set-dressing. Without some degree of exploration of what underpins it, Grimdark slides far too easily into tacky exploitation.

Yes, we can readily point to historical and contemporary real-world examples of innocent people living utterly wretched lives, but whole societies based on such brutality have always been an exception and rarely endure. More than that, even amid such horrors, individuals emerge time and again in whom the human spirit strives towards hope, altruism and defiance.

There will always be those who fight to light a candle instead of yielding to curse the darkness. It’s exactly that light and shade which makes for a far more realistic reading experience as far as I am concerned. Take a look at the works of Robin Hobb or Kate Elliott, among many others. They don’t shy away from the worst that humanity can do but they aren’t labelled Grimdark, even when their work includes toe-curlingly shocking events. Indeed, the impact of such brutality is heightened by the contrast of such darkness with the glimmers of hope and warm light of happiness elsewhere in their characters’ lives.

Which brings me to my next problem when books have an endless supply of shit, literal and metaphorical, for everyone to wade through. Pain and poo have their place among trials and tribulations which test and reveal character but the story overall must sustain and justify that. If there’s no narrative progression – and I don’t just mean some simplistic triumph over adversity, but some sense that events shape and drive the story – what’s the point? Grimdark too easily becomes a series of increasing misfortunes bombarding passive or at best reactive individuals who never take any initiative to change their own fate.

Why should a reader bother engaging with such a character or investing emotion in their fate when the unfolding narrative so clearly indicates that everything is going to go horribly wrong time and again? If any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is only ever an oncoming train, I find myself progressively distanced from the characters and their predicaments. This becomes even more pronounced when the central characters themselves are grim and brutal. When a reader can’t identify with, or simply doesn’t much care about, such people, the impact of their suffering is drastically reduced, further lessening engagement.

And incidentally, just in case anyone thinks I’m making a gendered argument here, the most recent striking example for me of all that I personally dislike in Grimdark is Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair. But this debate really isn’t about any one book or any single writer.

Epic fantasy needs light and shade to give it three dimensions. Detail and colour get lost in unremitting gloom. Thankfully there are plenty of current epic fantasy writers who understand this; Sam Sykes, Helen Lowe, Aidan Harte and Elspeth Cooper are just a few such authors whose books I can see on my shelves as I write this. Please feel free to flag up more in comments.

And equally, do feel free to speak up in favour of those authors who are most often labelled Grimdark; to explore different perspectives on such reading. I’m curious to know if, how and why you’re getting something rewarding that I’m missing.

But I’m still concerned about the artificial skewing of the market towards the Grimdark tendency, when a narrowing selection of books increasingly gets the bulk of promotion and front-of-bookstore presence. Not bad books by any means; I have found undoubted merits in novels that have exemplified the worst of Grimdark for me personally, yes, including Smiler’s Fair where I see plenty that’s positive in the book with regard to diversity, inclusivity and pacing. Even when the grimdarkery still kills that particular title for me. Though I have no problem with other folk reading and enjoying such books if they wish. Tastes vary after all.

But if disproportionate visibility means Grimdark increasingly dominates sales then retailers and publishers alike will look first and foremost for more of the same. That’s how the book business works. Then those of us with other tastes in reading will lose out if the authors we enjoy simply can’t sustain a writing career. If competition for that remaining market then sees Grimdark authors striving to outdo each other with ever increasing nastiness, ultimately those fans will lose out too, as epic fantasy hurtles towards that creative dead end. Just look at the way the serial killer narrative has devolved so far towards unredeemed ghastliness in a lot of recent crime fiction.

Thankfully we’re not there yet. So let’s do all we can to avoid taking that particular path by celebrating and promoting the full breadth and depth of epic fantasy fiction, past and present.

Links to some new books and to folk talking sense about the book trade.

I don’t often do link-round-up type posts but I think today’s a good day for one. I keep flagging up the issues of visibility for writers (all writers, male and female) so here’s a bit of signal boosting. Hopefully something for every taste.

Dark historical fantasy about medieval surgery? Try Elisha Magus by E C Ambrose.

Child of a Hidden Sea by Alyx Dellamonica. NPR Books discusses what happens when Fantasyland doesn’t want you…

Many fine writers continue to adapt and adopt new technologies to re-release their work. Check out Diana Pharaoh Francis’s re-release of The Cipher

J Kathleen Cheney’s Tales from the Golden City continue with The Seat of Magic

James A Hetley’s Stonefort Stories continue with Ghost Point at Book View Cafe – and if you’re not familiar with Book View Cafe, a writers’ co-operative, I strongly recommend you browse their splendid selection of books by excellent writers.

New from Joshua Palmatier (who also writes very fine books at Benjamin Tate) Shattering the Ley.

And lastly but by no means least, Mark Charan Newton’s Drakenfeld is now out in paperback. I asked him a few questions about what I found a thoroughly good read over at Fantasy Faction

Someone whose signal doesn’t need boosting is Hugh Howey. Honestly, he’s someone I ignore, and will continue to ignore until he stops making sweeping generalizations and insisting his view is The Only And Objective Truth when that is based on little or nothing more than his own personal and highly atypical experience.

Other folk are more generous with their time, pointing out the flaws and fallacies in his arguments, for the benefit of aspiring writers. I recommend you read

Brian McClellan on real publishing economics

John Scalzi on why publishing is a business not a football game and talk of taking sides is nonsensical.

Chuck Wendig on the idiocy of painting Amazon as an underdog.

Harry Connolly citing those articles and going on to add some good points of his own.

And since we’re here, a quick note that my new ebook Monster Hunters at Law is indeed now available via Amazon UK & US, Nook UK & US and Google Store Books.

Right, that should be plenty to keep you going while I crack on with the Work In Progress (which we’re not discussing in case that jinxes it) which is going really, really well…

Have a good weekend. I intend to.