Articles from December 2012



Christmas knitting, cooking and some reflections on family history

You might want to settle down with a cup of tea and a mince pie, since this does run rather long, even though these are only the briefest of the stories I could tell…

I’ve been knitting for my new nephew this year. I like to knit and sorting out needles and wool always makes me think of my Great Aunty Ivy, eldest of my maternal grandmother’s sisters, who taught me to knit and crochet when I was about nine. When she died, all her needles, hooks and the Singer sewing machine that had been a wedding present to her in 1919 came to me. It still has the instructions including notes on the correct needles to use for whalebone and an attachment for goffering the frills for maids’ caps.

Ivy hadn’t been expected to live to be married, having had a life-threatening goitre requiring a drastic operation in 1917. Gynae complications meant she could never have children and then she was widowed in the early 1950s, when her husband had a brain haemorrhage. But you just have to get on with life, she told me. So she did, robust in her opinions and in her vegetarianism, a staunch advocate of that since the 1920s. Woe betide anyone foolish enough to dismiss a meat-free diet as hippy faddishness in her hearing.

Born in 1900, she was, as she liked to tell us when she visited my grandparents at Christmas, the last Victorian in the family. Not that she had much time for ‘Victorian values’. I remember, one summer visit in my early teens, as we sat knitting together, her making some remarkably forthright enquiries as to what I knew about the facts of life. Once she was satisfied that I was properly informed, she told me about the day she and Betty, her other sister, had needed to reassure my startled grandmother returning from a bike ride with a bloodstained skirt. Ivy had only recently learned the full facts herself, on her wedding night when her husband had found himself patiently explaining what he was trying to do with and to her. None of the women of that generation had any objection to me, my siblings and cousins co-habiting before marriage. Very sensible, they called it, out of their husbands’ hearing.

The last conversation I had with Aunty Ivy, not long before her death, included her asking me all about the boyfriend I was living with, since he had been invited to my grandparents’ 80th birthday party, mostly so my Grandmother could meet/inspect him. Ivy, at 88, had been too frail to attend. Apparently the report was sufficiently favourable that they had decided between them he would make an excellent husband. They weren’t wrong. We’ve been married since 1989.

I’ve been thinking on my Grandmother today as I do some Christmas baking. A recent newspaper article agonising about how to bake a decent chocolate cake baffled me. I was taught to make a sponge mix with one quarter of the flour by weight replaced with cocoa powder. Job done. I’ve also made mince pies today, using the pastry recipe my Grandma taught me; half fat to flour, fat consisting of half butter* and half lard*. They always come out beautifully.

(*goat butter since I can’t eat cow’s milk and Cookeen if vegetarians are expected)

Grandma worked in ladies’ fashions at Bourne & Hollingsworth, Selfridges and lastly at Harrods in London before the Second World War. She was there during the Abdication Crisis, when the shop girls regularly overheard the Countess of Wherever discussing the scandalous details of Edward’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson with Lady Whosit in the changing rooms. When the first reports appeared in the foreign press, all the staff were summoned to a meeting where they were told if anything appeared in the British newspapers, they would all be sacked, regardless of whether or not such tale-telling could be traced back to the shop. My Grandmother was quietly unimpressed by bombastic male authority, I realised, even when Grandpa was laying down the law as he tended to on a fairly regular basis.

Though Grandma and her neighbour did listen to the ARP warden who told them off for going out and stamping on incendiaries in WWII, to put them out before the flames took hold. Air raids were a constant threat as she lived on the South Coast with twin baby girls and a husband away doing air traffic control for the USAAF. One particularly bad night, she couldn’t face going down to the shelter for the third or fourth time so she simply got under the bed with both babies and the dog. That’s where she discovered my Grandfather’s tobacco ration from the Americans, which he was drawing even though he didn’t smoke. Remembering cigarettes were supposed to calm the nerves, she broke open a packet of Lucky Strike and lit up. Because you just had to get on with things. There was no point in making a fuss.

When I make my mince pies, I used the pressed steel tins we got from my husband’s grandmother. Well greased, things never stick to them and the pastry is never soggy on the bottom. Steel, not stainless steel, mark you. So they need to be washed promptly and then put in the cooling oven to dry.

I met Nan when I was living here during a year’s medical leave from university. That was a tough year for all sorts of reasons and I used to go and see her when I needed some company. She was calm and quiet and welcoming and we talked about days gone by in the Cotswolds and her life in service as a daily cook to a local wealthy family and what was on the telly and oh, all sorts of things. She and my husband and his brother were all very close since she had helped see them through the tragically early death of their mother from cancer. In one of his last conversations with her, she told my husband ‘you should marry that girl’. He told her that he would, even before he’d asked me. Like my Aunty Ivy, Nan could see we were right for each other long before we were certain.

I have had to replace the basin for the Christmas pudding this year. Nan’s has developed an ominous crack so we’ll use it for fruit from now on. When I was younger, family Christmas puddings always came from my step-father’s mother. Granny was the eldest of nine born on a Lincolnshire farm just before the First World War. Her mother died young so she pretty much raised her brothers and sisters. She still found time to help out her neighbours though, particularly the ‘city girl’ a local gamekeeper married. Other locals were inclined to look on with disapproval. Granny called round to see how the new bride was getting on – and found her in tears, trying to pluck a hare. So Granny helped her skin and cook it, and kept an eye on her thereafter. Right into her latter years, Granny was quite capable of stopping to wring a pheasant’s neck when she saw a car clip one and leave it injured by the side of the road. And take it home for Sunday lunch.

She trained as a nurse and worked ‘on the District’ all her professional life, with that same blend of compassion and practicality, driving her Morris Minor all round South Yorkshire. She spent the Second World War nursing the wounded as well as raising her young son with her husband away serving as a radio operator on Lancaster bombers. Just getting on with it.

Meantime, my Granny McKenna was getting on with things in Plymouth, all through the air raids while her husband worked as a fitter in the Royal Dockyards and she raised three children including one hospitalised with osteomyelitis after breaking his leg. The doctors wanted to amputate but Granny wouldn’t let them, insisting that she would nurse my uncle through the bone infection and she succeeded. She did all this while wearing a fearsome back brace of leather and steel which fascinated me and my brother as young children. As a young woman just over from Ireland, she’d been hit by a brewery dray and when she’d recovered consciousness, she walked to the hospital with a broken ankle and several fractured vertebrae.

She’d come over to England to be as a priest’s housekeeper, initially working at the De La Salle teacher training college in London. An orphan from the Magdalene Laundries, that’s what she’d been trained up to do with her life. Except she met my grandfather who was working as a groundsman at the college and that was that. In her sixties, when she applied for her first passport, Granny McKenna discovered that the details the nuns had supplied about her original name, age and birth date were all incorrect. So she simply celebrated two birthdays for the rest of her life. There was no point making a fuss. Incidentally, she needed a passport to go on a parish trip to Lourdes. Not on her own account, you understand. She was going as a helper for those unfortunate souls who needed such a blessing.

These are my foremothers and I always find myself remembering them with admiration and affection at Christmas.

Defiant Peaks – competition results

You will recall that I set readers a challenge a few weeks ago, to ask me for a sentence from a book I haven’t written yet. The results are here and they’re very well worth reading.

What I particularly love is the way that these readers’ familiarity with my writing sees them asking many of the same questions which I was asking myself as I wrote Defiant Peaks. Indeed, they touch on several of the characters and plot-asides which they’ll find mentioned in that book. And that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoilers.

Apart from CE Murphy who sets me one of those out-of-genre challenges which we writers love throwing at each other.

And apart from Adrianne, who came up with an idea firmly rooted in the Tales of Einarinn that has simply never occured to me – and yet, as soon as I read it, it made such perfect sense. Of course that would happen! (And what would happen next? Oh, I’d love to find out…)

So on that basis, Adrianne is the overall winner. That said I had such fun doing this that I reckon everyone deserves a book. Adrianne can have more than one to mark her achievement.

So we’ll sort that out via email, and meantime, I must now resist the temptation to start writing another short story collection to follow up on all these ideas. Including the space-chameleons.

Epic fantasy and Women. Girls and Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks

There’s clearly something in the air again. This past week has seen some excellent posts challenging those hide-bound readers who want their epic fantasy to stick to outdated straight, white, male-driven narratives, arguing in their ignorance that this is historically accurate whereas narratives including women with autonomy and agency are political correctness gone mad.

In case you missed one or more of these, here are some links – and if you’ve seen one I missed, please flag it up.

Scott Lynch responds to a critical reader – “God, yes! If there’s one thing fantasy is just crawling with these days it’s widowed black middle-aged pirate moms.” You’re picking up the sarcasm there? Good. Read the whole thing, it’s awesome.

Foz Meadows offers “PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical”

prompted by –

Tansy Rayner Roberts “Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.”

Cheryl Morgan rounds up those same links and adds a few pertinent thoughts of her own.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll also link back to my own piece for Bad Reputation on the problematic representation of women in fantasy

Mind you, does anyone else find it tiresome that we still – men and women alike – have to keep pointing out these self-evident truths to the wilfully blinkered?

So let’s work on making it impossible for those types to deny women’s interest in and involvement with epic fantasy fiction and gaming without physically shutting their eyes and sticking their fingers in their ears while chanting “la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you”.

Here’s a good place to start. Jonathan Green is running a Kickstarter “You are the Hero” to fund writing a history, indeed a celebration of, 30 Years of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. As you’ll see from the page, he plans on interviewing a broad range of chaps to ensure a comprehensive exploration of these ground-breaking gaming books.

Um, yes. Chaps. Everyone man jack of the writers, artists and other creative types listed. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have genially queried this – and I’m sure you’ll be as pleased as me to learn that Jonathan is extremely keen to find more of the likes of me, who played through these books just as avidly as our brothers back in the day. I’m just as interested to find out how many of us there might be.

So if you are a fighting fantasy fan of the female persuasion, do let me know. If you’re happy for me to pass on your detail to Jonathan, do say so. Clearly whether or not he contacts you will be up to him; it’s his project and I can’t speak for what material he might need. But we can at least ensure he has such resources to hand.

Today – an in-depth interview with SFX Magazine

I thoroughly enjoyed doing this interview with SFX’s Alasdair Stuart, discussing all sorts of things from the early days of my writing career to the way my books have developed and how I arrived at The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. He asked some really interesting questions so hopefully you’ll find the answers offer you something new to think about too.

Click here to read the full interview

Defiant Peaks – Is This The End?

This is the question I’m getting asked most often at the moment. The obvious answer is, well, obvious. Yes, this is the final book in the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy so it brings this particular story to a conclusion.

Yes but, people persist in asking, is it, y’know the end? Trying to fathom what they mean, I realise that at least some folk have been a bit unnerved by my remarks over the past couple of years about this final book’s cover art. I’ve explained on panels and at conventions how writing this series has set me thinking more deeply than ever before about the way that Einarinn’s elemental wizards actually have an understanding of matter at the sub-molecular level. Which is great for them but a bit tricky for me since I went down the Languages and Humanities path at school rather than doing Science. Thank goodness for those marvellous history of science programmes which the awesome Professor Jim Al-Khalili has been doing for BBC Four.

I have been wondering precisely what Archmage Planir is doing in that final picture ever since I first got Clint Langley’s awesome artwork. Well into the writing of this series, I have honestly had no clue. Is it, I have wondered aloud more than once, something akin to The Manhattan Project? The Hadrumal Project? Will Planir end up quoting Robert Oppenheimer; “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Okay, now I realise where some of that nervousness is coming from, especially from people who’ve already read Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies. Anyone expecting that this trilogy’s middle volume would be mostly focused on getting characters in place for the big battle to come must have got a bit of a shock reading that. As Defiant Peak’s back cover notes, “Archmage Planir and the wizards of Hadrumal have unleashed their devastating magic…”

So I can see that readers could be a bit nervous about the possible consequences for the end of the series if Archmage Planir decides it’s never too late to escalate. Especially since those readers who are familiar with my previous books now have very well-founded suspicions about just who and what Hadrumal’s wizards will be facing. “The Archipelagans are baying for wizard blood, enraged at magic invading their domains…” Yes, and it’s not just the Aldabreshi Planir has to worry about as this series sees everyone – me included – learn a lot more about Hadrumal’s internal rivalries, wizardry in Solura and the different groups perfecting Artifice’s enchantments elsewhere.

Not that everyone asking this question is quite so apprehensive though. A few people have simply asked me because they realise this is my fifteenth novel set in the same world and with a continuous timeline threaded through the different stories told in each of my four epic fantasy series. Haven’t I said everything I’ve got to say with these characters and through this milieu? I have been writing shorter fiction in an increasingly wide range of other worlds and styles lately so isn’t it simply time for a change of scene?

You won’t be surprised to learn that most of those asking this aren’t primarily genre fans. One central aspect of epic fantasy fiction which I have always adored as a reader is the way that these stories generate questions and asides which the main narrative can’t spare the time to focus on. I’ve never felt that those ‘but what if’ and ‘how come’ and ‘but who’ loose threads detract from fantasy tales. They add depth and interest, a sense of a complete world continuing on when that final page is turned, and besides, real life is just as full of tangents and unknowns. Like so many other writers I’ve often found that pondering answers to those questions leads me to a whole new story. This has been a staple of epic fantasy writing ever since reading The Hobbit prompted us to wonder just where Gollum’s magic ring had come from and what it might signify.

So, is this the end? Oh, come on, do you honestly expect me to answer that? Read the book and find out for yourself!

It’s Midwinter in Caladhria – and pretty chilly in the Cotswolds as it happens

“SHE STOOD AMID the silent statues and contemplated the crystal urn holding her husband’s ashes; footed with silver leaves and crowned with a five-petalled flower sparkling in the light of the shrine’s candles.”

Those of you in the UK picking up a copy of Defiant Peaks (published today!) will now discover that this story opens at the Solstice celebrations in Halferan Manor, Caladhria. Midwinter in Einarinn is Souls’ Ease Night and Lady Zurenne is taking a private moment in the manor’s shrine before guiding Lady Ilysh through her duties accepting seasonal tithes from their tenantry in the great hall and leading the celebrations afterwards. Meanwhile Corrain is attending the quarterly parliament where the country’s nervous noblemen are debating new laws to forbid anyone having dealings with wizards, after seeing just what havoc Planir and Hadrumal’s senior mages can wreak when they put their mind to it. Magewoman Jilseth is spending the festival in Relshaz, paying little heed to mainland politics or religious observance. She’s more concerned with keeping a weather eye on the Aldabreshin Archipelago after recent events, as well as lending her talents to fathoming the secrets of the ensorcelled artefacts which the Archmage has now acquired.

So everyone’s set fair for a peaceful and prosperous new year? Not exactly…

Naturally, you won’t be surprised that we decided against using ‘Winter is coming’ on the back cover copy. The thing is though, there are a goodly number of fantasy books which aren’t set in Westeros with winter as a theme or a thread, as the latest SF Signal Mind Meld makes plain. As always, I find the other authors’ answers as fascinating as thinking about the original question. Do check out all the suggestions – and comments – and find out why my pick is Barbara Hambly’s ‘Darwath Trilogy’.